Art Treasures of Washington – Paintings

THE paintings in the United States Capitol may be generally classified in four groups : frescoes, historical subjects, landscapes, and portraits.

The decoration proper of the interior was undertaken in 1855, when Brumidi, an Italian painter, was employed upon the frescoes of the rotunda, the president’s room, the public reception room of the Senate, and numerous committee rooms and corridors.

Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880) was born in Rome, of an Italian father and a Greek mother. He studied his profession in the Accademia di San Luca, of which he is said to have become a member at the age of thirteen years. He painted frescoes in several palaces in his native city and worked for three years in the Vatican, under Gregory XVI. Brumidi was captain in the Papal guards during the Italian Revolution. Just before Rossi was assassinated, refusing to execute commands to turn the guns of his company upon the oppressed, he was arrested and thrown into prison, from which he was only released, at the intervention of the Pope, upon condition that he would immediately leave Italy. He landed in New York in 1849, and became a naturalized citizen in 1852. Brumidi spent three years in Mexico, after which he re-turned to Washington and spent the rest of his life upon the frescoes of the Capitol. His Apotheosis of Washington and scenes from American history, and allegories, which adorn the historic halls of this edifice, were the first frescoes painted in America.

The room of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, in the subterranean floor of the House wing, contains his first decorations, made by Brumidi as a test, so to speak, of his ability. The principal paintings are contained in two lunettes; on the east wall is pictured the Roman legendary hero, Cincinnatus, called from the plow to defend Rome, while on the west wall history repeats itself, some twenty-two centuries later, when Putnam, the American Revolutionary general, abandons his farm at Pomfret, Connecticut, to lead the American army.

In the ceiling of the room is an allegorical representation of the seasons, while on the north and south walls are portraits of Washington and Jefferson, with symbolic landscapes. These frescoes are signed and dated, C. Brumidi, 1855, and were so well liked by the authorities that the painter was given carte blanche on the remainder of the work.

Brumidi was employed at the Capitol from 1855 to 1880, and did all the frescoing between these periods. The greater part of the work was done at the rate of ten dollars a day, but contracts were made for several of the large pieces, such as the panel on the wall of the House, and the canopy and frieze of the rotunda. The latter was the last upon which the painter worked and he died before it was finished. Filippo Costaggani took up the work from Brurnidi’s sketches and worked upon the frieze until 1889.

Besides those already mentioned, Brumidi decorations are to be found in the president’s room, the public reception room, Senate side ; the sergeant-at-arms room, the ground floor corridor, the rooms of the committees on Military Affairs, on Naval Affairs, on Foreign Affairs, on Indian Affairs, on the District of Columbia, and in the Senate Post Office.

The president’s room is decorated with portraits of President Washington and his first cabinet — Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, Randolph, and Osgood ; with allegories of Religion, Liberty, Legislation and Executive authority; and portraits of Columbus, with emblems of discovery; Americus Vespucius (Exploration), William Brewster (Religion), and Benjamin Franklin (History).

The rotunda canopy represents the Apotheosis of Washington. In the centre is Washington, seated in majesty, like Jove on Olympus, with super-natural beings attending him. On his right sits Freedom; on his left Victory; and about him float thirteen aerial figures, representing the original states, their banneret inscribed ” E Pluribus Unum.”

Beneath and encircling the base of the canopy, runs an allegory of the Revolution. The group in line directly below Washington represents the Fall of Tyranny, or Liberty conquering Royalty, in which Freedom with her eagle puts to rout the forces of War, Tyranny, Priestcraft, Discord, Anger, and Revenge. Following, to the right, are depicted in succession : America, Ceres, Flora, and Pomona, representing Agriculture; Vulcan as Mechanics ; Mercury as Commerce (with portraits of Alexander Hamilton, and of Robert Morris) ; Neptune and Aphrodite with the Atlantic cable, typifying the sea; and Minerva (with portraits of Franklin, Fulton, and Morse), representing the Arts and Sciences.

At a height of sixty-five feet from the floor, and encircling the wall, which is, at this height, three hundred feet in circumference, runs the fresco in imitation of high relief, illustrating periods of the history of the continent. The frieze begun by Brumidi, and carried on by Costaggani, lacks still several feet of completion.

In this frieze America is depicted, with an Indian and an eagle, standing with History, who re-cords on her tablet the progress of events. The subjects are : Landing of Columbus, Cortez, and Montezuma in the Temple of the Sun, Pizarro in Peru, Burial of De Soto, Rescue of Captain John Smith, Landing at Plymouth Rock, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, Settlement of New ‘England, Oglethorpe and the Muscogees, Battle of Lexington, Declaration of Independence, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, Death of Tecumseh, the American Army Entering the City of Mexico, and California Gold Mining.

” Brumidi was a decorative painter. Not only did he know the technical side of the craft, how to draw and paint large figures in distemper on the curved plaster surfaces; but he was the inheritor of the great Italian traditions which started with Raphael and Correggio, and were harmonized and codified by the later eclectic schools. He knew all the gods and goddesses of classical antiquity, their attributes and accessories, their floating, formless draperies, the way in which they should be grouped together, the scale on which they should be drawn to fit a given space, the architectural details necessary to bind the whole together, and when to paint in colour, and when to give variety by working in monotint. While thus certainly a decorative painter, Brumidi was with equal certainty a very bad one. Even in Italy the school to which he belonged was worn out and every particle of life and inspiration had departed from it. Its practitioners put together the old materials according to the old formulas with no feeling, but with some skill. Brumidi and his compatriots who were associated with him Capellano, Causici, Castigini, and the rest lacked even this skill, being, according to the Italian standard, but indifferent work-men, and yet it is difficult to see what better could have been done at the time. The art commission appointed by Buchanan . . . criticized the work of the Italians and recommended the employment of native talent. But native artists would probably have done still worse, if they had been able to work at all, which is doubtful.” ” American Painting ” by Samuel Isham.

The system of acquiring statues and paintings, inaugurated by the early Congress, has continued till the present day. When the wings of the Capitol extension were completed, their decoration was carefully considered by T. U. Walker, the architect and M. C. Meigs, the superintendent. The determination to employ native talent, shown in the later commissions for sculpture, prevailed also in the department of mural painting, and William H. Powell and James Walker were selected to make the battle scenes which are to be found on the east and west stairways of the Senate wings.

Not very long after the extension was ready for decoration, Congress provided for the appointment of a committee of ‘artists to select and supervise the character and installation of the paintings and statues. This resulted in the appointment of the first art commission created by the government. It was appointed by President Buchanan and consisted of Henry K. Brown, sculptor, James R. Lamb-din, portrait painter, and John F. Kensett, landscapist. The commission organized on June 1, 1859, submitted its only report on February 22, 186o.

The commission recommended the employment of American artists to do the work, and the selection of subjects from American history for the motive of the decorations. Brumidi was criticized for ¡painting the rooms in the style of the loggias of Raphael, and the baths of Titus and Pompeii, as well as for his foreign treatment of American subjects. The detailed recommendations of this commission are interesting, though little intelligent ccnsideration has been shown to the report.

The paper covered the whole ground of the Capitol, made many valuable suggestions, and spoke a word in disfavour of public competitions, as repugnant to artists of the first rank, and deemed it ” respectful and proper to award to such artists as have achieved a national reputation, commissions for works for which their talents have fitted them.” Finally they recommended the establishment of an art commission to be the channel for the distribution of all appropriations to be made by Congress for art purposes ; and who shall secure to artists an intelligent and unbiassed adjudication upon the designs they may present for the embellishment of the national buildings.”

The lack of intelligent and continuous super-vision in the selection and installation of decorations is immediately felt when passing through the Capitol. The few artistic results are marred or ruined by the inharmonious colour or scale of objects in relation to their surroundings; and the faults which these early commissioners feared have grown with years.

The first painter to work upon the decorations of the Capitol was John Trumbull (1756-1843), who made four of the eight large historical panels in the rotunda. The commission was given to him in 1816, and the pictures, completed in 1824, were placed in 1827.

Colonel John Trumbull was an interesting revolutionary character, and a strong factor in the early art of our country. His taste for drawing developed young, and had already manifested itself when he joined the army, as adjutant, upon the outbreak of the Revolution. He was made aide-de-camp of General Washington in the first year of the war, and in the succeeding year, 1776, he was made deputy adjutant general of the northern department, under General Gates. Dissatisfied with the date of this commission, and disgusted by the pro-motion of some junior officers, he retired from service, in the spring of 1777, and resumed his art studies. His love for military life had not left him, however, and when, in 1778, a plan was formed for the recovery of Rhode Island from the British, he joined General John Sullivan during the enter-prise, as volunteer aide-de-camp. In May, 178o, he sailed for France, whence, after a short stay, he went to London with a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin West. Here he was arrested for treason, at the time of the execution of Major André, on the charge of being a spy; but, by the kind aid of West and Copley, who became surety for him, he was released, after an imprisonment of eight months, in the Tower, on condition of leaving the country.

Enthusiastic in his estimate of the consequences of the Revolution, and of the future greatness of his country, he was deeply mortified at the impossibility of attaching his name, in a military character, to the glories of war; but, having a talent for drawing, Colonel Trumbull began to cultivate it, hoping to bind his name to the great events of the time by becoming the graphic historiographer of them, and of his early comrades.

When the close of the war enabled him to return to England, he resumed his studies with West, and in 1786 produced, in London his first considerable historical work —” The Death of General Warren, at Bunker Hill.”

John Adams was then United States Minister to London, and Thomas Jefferson held the same appointment in Paris. The artist was known to both and they encouraged his scheme to paint pictures commemorative of the principal events of the Revolution. He was careful to make faithful portraits, as well as accurate details of the arms, dresses, and manners of the time, with all of which he had been familiar.

The original paintings which he made were of small size suited to the use of the engraver; and several of the compositions were immediately studied and prepared for the introduction of the in-tended portraits. Jefferson and Adams were both painted before they returned from their embassies, in the small picture of the Declaration of Independence, from which the work in the rotunda was copied.

In the autumn of 1789 the artist, who had achieved some place and reputation in Europe, re-turned to America, to pursue his patriotic work. He found Washington, and many other distinguished characters, in New York, then the seat of government, and having procured their portraits in the several compositions for which they were in-tended, he travelled through various parts of the country from New Hampshire to South Carolina, in search of others, and, in 1794, had nearly completed the collection of portraits, views of places, and all the various data necessary to the execution of his plan.

At this time his work attracted so much attention that it was proposed to employ him to execute the entire series for the nation ; but this proposal failed to be carried into effect because there was no building suitable for their reception, and also in consequence of a doubt as to whether Congress had the right to appropriate public money for such a purpose.

The French Revolution here intervened, and attention was diverted until the year 1816, thirty years after he had made the ” Bunker Hill,” when Congress passed a resolution authorizing Trumbull to execute four of the works now in the rotunda.

Had not the preparatory steps been taken, the work would have been impracticable, for, even at that early date, most of the characters in the pictures were dead ; while scenes, dresses, arms, and manners had all changed, and it would have been impossible for the pictures to have been painted with that authenticity and truth which give to these works their peculiar value.

Trumbull offered a wealth of possible subjects, for which he has secured the data, from which the following were chosen; ” The Declaration of Independence,” The Surrender of Burgoyne at Sara-toga,” ” Cornwallis’ Surrender at Yorktown,” and ” Washington Resigning his Commission.”

The most familiar of these paintings is the ” Declaration of Independence,” many times engraved, notably by Asher B. Durand. It includes forty-seven portraits, while the room is copied from that in which Congress held its sessions at that time — ” such as it was before the spirit of innovation laid unhallowed hands on it and violated its venerable walls, by modern improvement, as it is called.”

As to the portraits included, Mr. Trumbull advised with Jefferson and Adams, who declared that the signatures of the original act should be the general guide; but that portraits ought to be admitted of those who were opposed, and of course did not sign, such as John Dickinson of Delaware, author of the ” Farmer’s Letters,” the most eloquent and powerful opposer of the measure. They particularly recommended that the artist should, where possible, obtain his portrait from the living person and that, when that was impossible, he should then take the likeness from the best portrait extant; that no ideal representation should be introduced, since the inclusion of some doubtful portraits might throw discredit upon all.

For this canvas, Adams was painted in London, Jefferson in Paris, Hancock and Samuel Avery in Boston, Edward Rutledge in Charleston, South Carolina, Wythe at Williamsburg, Virginia, Bartlett at Exeter, New Hampshire, etc.

In order to give variety to his composition, Trumbull found it necessary to depart from the usual practice of reporting an act, and has made the whole committee of five advance to the table of the president, to make their report, in place of having the chairman rise in .his place for that purpose.

The painting of Burgoyne’s surrender represents the general attended by General Phillips, and followed by other officers, arriving near the marquee of General Gates. The general has advanced a few steps from the entrance to meet his prisoner, who with Phillips has dismounted and is in the act of offering his sword; this Gates declines to receive, and invites them to enter and partake of refreshment. A number of the principal officers of the American army are assembled near their general.

The confluence of the Fish Creek and the North River, where the British left their arms, is shown in the distance; the troops are indistinctly seen crossing the creek and the meadows under the direction of Colonel Lewis; they disappear behind the wood, which serves to relieve the three principal figures in the composition.

Officers on horseback, American, British, and German, precede the head of the column and form an interesting cavalcade, following the two dismounted generals and connecting the different parts of the picture.

The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, represents the moment when General O’Hara and other officers of the British army, con-ducted by General Lincoln, are passing the two groups of American and French guards, and entering between the two lines of victors. By this means the principal officers of the three nations are brought together, so as to admit of distinct portraits.

In the centre of the painting, in the distance, are seen the entrance to the town with the captured troops marching out, following their officers, and also a distant glimpse of the York River, and the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, as seen from the spot. The portraits of the French officers were obtained in Paris in 1787, and were painted from life in the house of Thomas Jefferson, then minister to France, from the United States. The picture contains thirty-four portraits.

The resignation of General Washington, at Annapolis, December 23, 1783, makes an impressive picture, and contains an excellent portrait of Washington. After taking an affectionate leave of his old comrades at New York, General Washington proceeded to Annapolis, where Congress, the very shadow of a government, was then sitting, and re-signed his commission into the hands of twenty-three powerless men, divested himself of all authority, and retired to private life.

Thomas Mifflin, then president of Congress, had been his first aide-de-camp, and Trumbull had been his second.

Thirty-six portraits are introduced, including, amongst the spectators, Mrs. Washington and her three grandchildren, and the two aides-de-camp, who accompanied Washington to Annapolis — Colonel Benjamin Walker and Colonel David Humphries.

As an artist, Trumbull suffers by being known by these, his poorest works, painted late in life, and of mediocre quality. Yet he must be remembered gratefully for his unselfish patriotism, as the first American painter to depict American historical subjects without promise of pecuniary reward. So poorly was he paid for his work that he gave his whole collection of paintings to Yale College for an annuity of $1,000 upon which to exist; and by this collection alone can his ability be properly measured.

He had originality of design, but was an unequal, though ofttimes skilful, draughtsman. He saw clearly out of but one eye, owing to an injury sustained in childhood. That this defect may have affected his drawing seems reasonable, since it is recorded that Stuart once remarked of a drawing by Trumbull, that it looked as though it had been painted by a man with one eye. Though Stuart was a warm friend of Trumbull, and his fellow student in the studio of Benjamin West, he had not known of the other’s affliction until this remark brought it out, Trumbull being much offended at the supposed allusion to his infirmity.

Trumbull was at his best as a painter in little. The miniature heads in his small historical paintings are extremely clever and the composition was quite perfect. While these may be studied most intelligently at Yale, the two miniatures of George and Martha Washington, to be found in the Old National Museum building, amongst other historic relics are superb examples of Trumbull’s art.

The rotunda contains eight of these panels, deco-rated with memorable scenes in the history of the continent and of the United States. Trumbull, as we have seen, made four ; the remaining four were the work of John Vanderlyn, W. H. Powell, John G. Chapman, and Robert Weir, whose subjects were the ” Landing of Columbus on San Salvador,” ” Discovery of the Mississippi,” Baptism of Pocohontas,” and ” Embarkation of the Pilgrims from Delfshaven, July 22, 1620.”

We have seen, in the chapter relating to the Corcoran Gallery, how Morse missed a chance to make one or more of these panels. Vanderlyn was a second applicant for the work, and between him and Trumbull an animosity, roused by the award of Trumbull’s handsome commission, arose. Trumbull, undoubtedly, had more political influence, in the special sense of the word, than Vanderlyn, and knew how to use it, but, in all fairness, the commission was his due on his apparent merits and his elaborate equipment of sketches and studies. Vanderlyn, however, felt himself the better painter, having had a sound training in France and being in the height of his powers, while Trumbull’s skill was on the decline.

With his failure to receive the commission came a succession of vicissitudes, followed by real poverty, suffered in seclusion in his native Kingston. Finally, in 1842, toward the end of his life, Congress, urged by his friends, employed him upon one of the remaining panels, but the recognition came too late to Vanderlyn. Long inactivity had diminished his skill. He went to. Paris to execute the work, from whence came a report that, while the conception and design were his, the painting itself advanced under the hand of a clever young Frenchman, whom Vanderlyn had employed. The appearance of the decoration bears out this theory.

The panel awarded to Powell had, in the original contract, been given to Henry Inman, who died without having commenced the painting. Trumbull received $32,000 for his four panels, Chapman, Vanderlyn, and Weir, $10,000 each, and Powell was paid for his $12,000.

Before the commencement of the Capitol extension, the large paintings for the rotunda were finished with the exception of the panel awarded to Inman. The ” Discovery of the Mississippi ” was placed in 1855. After the employment of Greenough and Trumbull no commissions were given to either foreign sculptors or painters, with the exception of Brumidi, as has been related.

A semi exception, again in the department of fresco, is the painting on the wall of the landing of the west stairway, by Emanuel Leutze, who is counted as an American artist, though, as we have seen in the chapters on the Corcoran Gallery, he was of foreign birth and educated at Düsseldorf.

The painting has for its legend Bishop Berkeley’s line : ” Westward the star of the empire takes its way.” For its physical accuracy Leutze was conscientious enough to make a trip to the Rocky Mountains for his scenery, and another to Germany to consult Kaulbach on the best methods of fresco painting.

The painting is done directly on the wall. The basis is a thin layer of cement of powdered marble, quartz, dolomite, and air-worn lime; water colours are applied on this cement and fixed by a spray of water glass solution, a method that commends itself, as the surface thus prepared can be worked over, a thing almost impossible in ordinary fresco.

” Westward Ho!” was ordered by General Meigs, July 9, 1861, and completed in 1862. It represents in a large, restless composition, a scene in the Rocky Mountains, amidst whose defiles passes a caravan of immigrants — pioneers with their wagons and camping outfits. The caravans are led by oxen, preceded by cavaliers; and the idea presented by the picture is the opening up of the west. The decoration covers the whole wall, is an effort ambitious rather than successful, and cost the government $20,000.

In the predella, under the picture, is Bierstadt’s ” Golden Gate,” and in the borders are portraits of Daniel Boone, the pioneer of the southwest, and Captain William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Columbia, 1803-1806.

The great mass of historical paintings in the Capitol belong to that variety of picture which records dry statistics, to the exclusion of artistic interest. ” The Battle of Chapultepec ” was painted by James Walker, in 1862, and is to be found on the west stairway of the Senate wing. Guides are fond of telling that Walker was present at the battle, though he does not seem to have been impressed by the spirit of his theme. The picture was intended for the room of the Committee on Military Affairs, a location more suitable than its present one.

” Battle on Lake Erie,” by William H. Powell, was completed in 1871, and hangs on the east stairway of the Senate wing. It illustrates the dramatic incident of the transfer of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry from the disabled flag ship, Lawrence, in the midst of the battle, to the Niagara.

Our two early landscape painters, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, are represented by two large canvases each, purchased at fabulous prices by the government in the early seventies. The landscapes by Bierstadt ornament the members’ retiring roams, behind the House lobby, and represent ” The Discovery of the Hudson by Hendrik Hudson, in 1609,” and ” Expedition under Vizcaino Landing at Monterey, in 1601.” These are careful studies of eastern and western views in which there is little to rouse enthusiasm.

” The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” and ” Chasm of the Colorado,” by Thomas Moran, were placed in the Capitol in 1873, and are located in the Senate lobby. Of all the landscapes which the Capitol conserves these stand preeminent as combining with fidelity of historical fact, the element of art. Thomas Moran is a later man, and though his wonderful facility of hand gives him a certain affinity with Bierstadt and other seekers for nature’s marvels, he has a wider knowledge of painting, and draws his inspiration quite as much from Turner, whom he admires extravagantly, as from the Hudson River School. ” The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone ” is Moran’s masterpiece. Dignified and noble in composition, admirable in colour, patient and beautiful in rendering, and fine in design, it typifies the best of its kind. The canvas is signed and dated, Thos. Moran, 1872.

The ” Chasm of the Colorado ” is less successful as a unit, but deals wonderfully with a subject staggering in its vastness. There is no other living painter that could do it now. Moran’s work is the consummation of the style of painting bred with the western explorations.

In the Senate lobby is also preserved an interesting study of ” Table Rock, Niagara,” or ” Niagara in Winter,” by Regis Gignoux, presented by Mrs. Charles Carroll in memory of her husband. Gignoux was the only direct instructor of Inness. He was a Frenchman, born in Lyons, studied at the Beaux Arts and under Delaroche, and came to America in 1844. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Design and was the first president of the Brooklyn Art Academy. He re-turned to France in 187o, after enjoying a great vogue in this country.