Art Treasures of Washington – The Library Of Congress

THE decorations of the Library of Congress furnish a résumé of the status of decorative painting and sculpture in America at the time of its erection. Its spacious halls and corridors, its elaborate exterior, furnished opportunity for the activities of most of the promising painters and sculptors of the epoch, and in providing a forum for the artistic genius of our country, the Library suggests a parallel with the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, to the beauty of which so many contemporary French decorators have contributed. If results in Washington do not approach those of the French capital, the intention is at least a fine one and has brought to light several enduring masterpieces, including the chef d’oeuvre of the whole city Bartlett’s ” Michael Angelo.”

The Library of Congress has been endlessly criticized, from the time of its inception, in 1888, until the completion of the structure, in 1897. In extenuation of its over vividness of colour, its too lavish use of gold leaf, the claims of posterity bave been speciously urged, and the example of the well toned walls of Pompeii, faded, we are assured, many times from their first brilliancy, has been cited to’ prove what time may be expected to make of these rather crude beginnings.

But while the cognoscenti deplore the exuberance of its ornament, its over done and pretentious decoration, the Library continues to be the admiration of the people, who find unending interest in its sumptuous gorgeousness of line and colour; and the delight of the student, to whom the manifold practical advantages of this vast treasure house of books, outweigh all aesthetic short comings of purely visual import.

In creating this somewhat rococo ensemble, about forty American artists were employed. The original architectural plans were prepared by the firm of Smithmeyer and Pelz; while the actual building, as it stands, is the design of General Thomas Lincoln Casey.

The drawings for the interior architecture and scheme of decoration in the building are the work of Edward Pearce Casey, an architect of New York, who completed his studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Commissions for mural and sculptural decorations were given out under Mr. Casey’s general direction. His personal work in designing the principal interiors of the Library was enormous, and to him is due the general colour scheme, followed in the harmony of the individual decorations.

The greater part of the mural paintings were executed on canvas, in the different artists’ studios, and, when completed, were fixed to the wall by a clever process, which consists of applying a thin bed of composition, of which white lead is the principal ingredient, to the wall or ceiling, and rolling on the canvas. In this manner the decoration is fastened smoothly and securely to the wall.

This process is successful when applied ti) a flat space, but presents great difficulty when the surface to be treated is curved. In only one case in the Library has the French system of goring the canvas, to make it fit a concave surface, been adopted. In the large decorations, such as Maynard’s ceiling in the southwest pavilion, where the surface is a section of a sphere, and Blashfield’s work in the central rotunda, both artists executed their designs in place directly on the walls, and spent months, with their assistants, working in the building.

Edwin H. Blashfield’s decorations may be considered the most important of the paintings in the Library, and occupy the most favourable and conspicuous situation, constituting indeed the culmination of the interior of the vast dome, itself the most imposing and harmonious feature of the whole structure. The Blashfield decorations consist of two parts : ” The Progress of Civilization,” con-fined to a zone or belt below the lantern of the dome, and ” Human Understanding,” which fills the crown of the lantern.

The crown of the lantern consists of a circular, concave ceiling, and the decoration includes three figures. Human Understanding is represented by a female figure, floating among clouds of white and gray. She lifts her enveloping veil and looks upward from finite achievement, as expressed in the figures of the belt, to what is beyond. She is accompanied by two nude figures of boys, or genii, who float at her sides, one holding a closed book, in token of the end of all things, and the other beckoning to the figures below.

The zone to which is confined the other fresco, is about one hundred and forty feet in circumference, and surrounds the eye of the lantern, at a height of about one hundred and twenty-five feet from the floor of the rotunda. It contains twelve seated colossal figures, each ten feet high, alternated with twelve cartouches or tablets, inscribed with the names of the nations or epochs which have contributed to the evolution of civilization. Under each figure runs a banderole or streamer, with an inscription referring to the special contribution of the country or epoch represented by the figure above.

The wings of the figures, by overlapping, make an important feature of the decorative mass of the composition, by unifying its component parts.

The painter, in his conception of the decoration has observed a certain formality of design, well suited to the structure to which it is applied. The figures are divided into four triads, of which the central figures are relatively rigid and the drapery principally white. The side figures lean toward the central ones, and their drapery is of darker tints. Egypt, Judea, Greece, Rome, Islam, Middle Ages, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, France, and America are the twelve figures typified, and in their characterization the painter has introduced the features of several personages, more or less famous, which lends interest to the whole. Thus, the Middle Ages, contributing modern languages, bears the countenance of Mary Anderson; England, contributing literature, is a portrait of Ellen Terry; Germany, bringing the art of printing, carries the features of General Casey, the architect of the Library; while Abraham Lincoln’s countenance dominates the features of America, whose contribution to civilization is science. In France (emancipation) the model for the face was the artist’s wife, and a young sculpturess of New York is said to have inspired the physiognomy for the figure of Italy, bearing the fine arts.

The dominant colours of this decoration are white, bluish green and violet, with which colours the draperies of the figures harmonize, by gradations from white to violet tints, and the violet hues are shaded to yellow and orange. The composition is light in its general tone and carries with great effectiveness. The arabesque ornament of the dome, whose surface is filled with a system of square coffers, leads consistently up to the harmonious decoration, its crowning feature.

Immediately the eye falls below the dome, it enters the realm of confusion, created by overloaded decoration. The semicircular windows, each repeating the seal of the United States, and ornamented with the seals of forty-eight states and territories, disturb the background of the symbolic bronze statues, and destroy all chance for restful space. Every available spot is tortured with deco-ration.

In the vestibule, just before entering the great rotunda, are five tympana decorated by Elihu Vedder, which may be classed amongst the best of the decorations in the Library. The subjects deal with the ” Government of the Republic,” and the panels depict : Government, Good Administration, Peace and Posterity, Corrupt Legislation, and Anarchy. These lunettes showing the painter’s capability and good judgment, are remarkable for their fine conception, and their normal relation to their environment, by which they appear part of the wall to which they are affixed. Vedder’s restrained, yet rich colour, his solidity of drawing, and finished beauty of design, are admirable, and nothing better in the way of fitness will be found in the Library.

John W. Alexander has embellished the larger vestibule of the entrance pavilion with a series of six panels picturing the ” Evolution of the Book.” The colour is pleasing and suitable, and the composition simple, if fragmentary.

On each side of the central stairway is a lateral gallery of which the south hall is decorated by Henry Oliver Walker, and the north hall by Charles Sprague Pearce. The subjects are respectively ” Poetry ” and ” The Family.” The north and south curtain corridors are embellished by Edward Simmons whose subject is ” The Muses; ” and Walter MacEwen, whose ” Greek Heroes ” are typical of his academic drawing and coldly classic style.

In the representatives’ reading room are mosaic mantels by Frederick Dielman, symbolizing Law and History; while the ” Pictorial Spectrum of Light” is the subject of the seven ceiling panels of this apartment, by Carl Gutherz. E. J. Holslag’s idealization of Literature adorns the ceiling of the librarian’s room.

The, second floor contains in the north corridor George W. Maynard’s panels depicting the Virtues; Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, and Philosophy by Robert Reid; and a series called “The Senses,” by Reid, consisting of five hexagonal shaped panels in the ceiling. The east ceiling of the pavilion is devoted to George R. Barse, whose subject is ” Literature,” and W. A. Mackay, who depicts the Fates. The wall paintings are ” L’Allegro ” and ” II Penseroso,” by W. B. Van Ingen.

The south corridor continues Maynard’s Virtues (there are four on each side), and contains Frank W. Benson’s four circular panels of the Seasons; while he has further embellished the ceiling with four symbolic Graces. In the west corridor Walter Shirlaw’s ceiling paintings comprise a series of female figures idealizing the Sciences.

Kenyon Cox’s decorations in the southwest gallery consist of two lunettes of the Arts and Sciences. In the opposite gallery corresponding spaces are decorated by Gari Melchers, with War and Peace.

The southwest pavilion is devoted to ” The Discovery and Settlement of America,” by George W. Maynard; while the northwest pavilion contains panels of Art, Music, Literature, and Science by W. L. Dodge. R. L. Dodge and E. E. Garnsey have decorated the southeast pavilion with wall and ceiling paintings symbolic of the Four Elements; and the seals of the United States and the executive departments are the motives of the decorations in the northeast pavilion, by W. B. Van Ingen and E. E. Garnsey.

From the east corridor a stairway ascends to the balcony of the reading room. On the wall of the landing is Vedder’s mosaic panel of Minerva.

The sculpture of the Library is equally comprehensive, and, on the whole, more effective., While in the mural decorations there are, if not too many abstract themes, at least too many similar ones, the subjects in sculpture do not repeat themselves. In the mural paintings the arts and sciences occur pretty frequently, while in the sculpture abstract subjects alternate with historical ones.

The bronze figures in the three niches of the fountain at the main approach are by E. Hinton Perry. In the niches of the principal façade are busts of Demosthenes, Dante, and Walter Scott, by Herbert Adams; Emerson, Hawthorne, and Irving, by J. Scott Hartley; and Goethe, Macaulay, and Franklin, by F. W. Ruckstuhl. The six figures in the spandrels, over the main entrance, are by Bela Pratt. The central doors are the work of Frederick MacMonnies, and those to the right and left are the design of Olin L. Warner, who died before they were erected and whose work was finished by Herbert Adams.

The lamp bearers and other sculptures of the main stairway are by Philip Martiny.

In the central reading room are eight colossal figures set on pedestals at the top of the piers between the arches. They are: History, by Daniel Chester French ; Art, by Augustus Saint Gaudens ; Poetry, by J. Q. A. Ward; Law, by Paul W. Bartlett; Philosophy, by Bela L. Pratt; Science, by John Donoghue ; Commerce, by John Flanagan ; and Religion, by Theodore Baur.

Looking down from the railing of the gallery under the dome, stand sixteen bronze statues of characters distinguished in the several fields of learning and achievement represented by the symbolic statues. These are slightly over life size. They include Shakespeare, by Frederick MacMonnies; Herodotus, by Daniel C. French; Columbus and Michael Angelo, by Paul W. Bartlett; Saint Paul, by John Donoghue ; Gibbon and Moses, by Niehaus ; Plato and Bacon, by John J. Boyle ; Fulton, by E. C. Potter ; Kent, by George Bissell; Newton, by Cyrus E. Dallin; Beethoven, by Theodore Baur; Joseph Henry, by Ruckstuhl; and Homer, by Louis Saint Gaudens.

This gallery contains the cream of the sculpture in Washington. MacMonnies’ statue of Shakespeare is considered the most original of all the sculptor’s work, and stands out from the others as an unique archaic figure very significant of the epoch to which, historically, it relates. MacMonnies approaches the figure in a spirit of reverence, in his conception of the Bard of Avon, and, following the bust at Stratford, and the Droeshout portrait, approved by Ben Jonson, has imparted to his statue ah austere and remote sentiment, well suited to the age and the personage represented.

The Elizabethan costume clothes the figure in its ample and richly designed folds, whose bulky fabrics and stiff lines contribute to the character of the work, and give style and distinction to the man. These accessories have been handled with skilful reserve; the heavy embroidery of the coat and doublet are kept in such low relief as to detract not at all from the desirable simplicity of the mass, thus handsomely enriched.

A letter from Mr. MacMonnies under date of July 27, 1912, contains the following extract pertaining to the statue of Shakespeare :

” In making this statue the question of the portraits, as to which likeness to follow, afforded keen interest.

” Up to the time I undertook the work, some sixteen years ago, the Chandos portrait or the Stratford bust had been accepted as the authentic likeness.

“I began by making a collection of all prints, drawings, and etchings of Shakespeare’s head available, and came to the conclusion that the Droeshout engraving had been made either from life, as Ben Jonson quaintly suggests, in the folio dedication, or from a painted portrait made directly from life. Of all the portraits extant the Droeshout print seemed to me the only representation of a living personality. The others might have been imagined or concocted. So I followed it scrupulously, avoiding the conventionally graceful pose, in a graceful costume, and the vague head, usually adopted in statues of Shakespeare.

” I was much gratified recently to learn that the original painted portrait, which I thought had existed, had come to light in England, a few years ago, and had been accepted by able specialists on the subject, as the authentic and true likeness of Shakespeare.

To me the less romantic and beautiful Droeshout portrait is far more convincing. It has a quaint charm, a strong personal character which the other lacks. It is a portrait of a man of the world, a sympathetic observer of life, and is far more suggestive of the great dramatist and thinker than the Chandos dandy, with flowing mustaches and beard.”

Bartlett’s ” Columbus ” is another splendid conception. In this robust, proud figure of the dis-coverer we feel the seer, the adventurer, and the hero. He has dressed carefully for a royal audience, in leather jerkin, short, puffed breeches, and upper sleeves, the tight lower sleeves falling well over the hand, silk clad legs, and a long, fur lined coat, widely turned back.

His well proportioned figure, full of life, enthusiasm and vigour is posed in a commanding attitude, and one feels his arguments to have been invincible. The face is of heroic mould, with broad forehead, deep set eyes and firm mouth, framed in long abundant locks. His right hand points to the untried route, and the unknown land, which he sees in an ecstatic vision. In his left hand is grasped the folded map, which has contained the substance of his argument, and now, with head thrown back, he makes his final stirring appeal, whioh will win Isabella to his cause.

The figure is dramatic and powerfully eloquent, while for its purely sculptural attributes the large masses of line and surface are treated broadly, while the ensemble is full of colour and freshness.

Fine as is the ” Columbus,” Bartlett seems to reach the zenith of his power in the more distinguished and immortal ” Michael Angelo.” This statue of the great master of the Renaissance takes precedence over everything else in the Library and indeed may be considered the one great enduring masterpiece of the art of the whole city.

The statue of Michael Angelo dates back to 1898, one year later than the Columbus, and of the period immediately before the sculptor commenced the equestrian statue of Lafayette, in Paris. It marks, therefore, the very point of the sculptor’s ” arrival ” in the fullest sense of the word.

A review of the life of Bartlett shows how every-thing led up to the production of this chef d’oeuvre and how everything that comes after it counts as a definite achievement in the evolution of his career. Paul W. Bartlett was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Truman H. Bartlett, of Boston, himself a sculptor. As a boy he went to Paris, with his mother, and came early to the attention of Frèmiet, who found him modelling in the garden of the house at Marly, near Paris, and criticized his work from time to time.

At the age of fourteen he made his entrée into the Salon, where he showed a bust of his grand-mother, and in the same year he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where, in addition to the regular course of the atelier, he managed to attend the lectures on animal sculpture at the Jardin des Plantes, directed by Monsieur Frèmiet. Years of diligence followed, and at the age of twenty-two he showed his group of the Bohemian Bear Tamer,” which reveals his early skill in the model-ling of animal forms. This group won for the sculptor his first official recompense, and is pre-served in the plaster, in the Chicago Art Institute, while the bronze replica is owned by the Metropolitan Museum. A little later the ” Indian Ghost Dance,” now in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was made.

In the Salon of 1895, Mr. Bartlett made an extraordinary display of small bronzes: beetles, fishes, reptiles, and crustaceans, in which he developed his profound study of bronze casting in its most intricate forms, and his experimental study of the possibilities of patina, perfected to a marvellous degree, vieing with the skill of the old Japanese artists.

The commissions for the statues for the Library followed, and their success led to the award to Bartlett of the statue of Lafayette, for which the school children of America contributed $50,000, at the time of the Paris Exposition, of 1900. The completed statue, about which so much has been written, stands in the most coveted position in all Paris, the court of the Louvre, in that inner garden, facing the main entrance to the museum. The monument compares favourably with the few genuinely great equestrian statues of the world, amongst which it unquestionably takes its place.

The ” Michael Angelo ” easily dominates the other statues of the rotunda, by force of its strong, fine, sculpturesque quality, its tremendously vital character. The silhouette is fine from every vantage point; from the opposite side of the gallery, from the floor of the great reading room, or from the rear of the figure, where one is close upon it, the massive strength of the sculptural mass carries and convinces.

Bartlett’s conception of the Florentine is original and truthful, bared of any traditional sentimentality, and portrays the sculptor workman, garbed in his leather apron, bearing in his horny hand a tool — yet the statue touches on the sublime. The head resembles the self portrait painted by the master, and expresses the thoughtful, vigorous, mighty, dominating -factor of the Renaissance.