The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

5. The Murals by Constantino Brumidi for the United States Capitol Rotunda, 1860-1880
An Iconographic Interpretation

FRANCIS V. O'CONNOR

With the recent restoration of the rotunda of the United States Capitol, Constantino Brumidi stands revealed as one of the first major American muralists 1--one of a short but eminent list of foreign-born wall painters who have made major contributions to our visual culture going back to Michele Felice Cornè and ahead to Sir Frank Brangwyn and Diego Rivera. Though he was a naturalized citizen, Brumidi's foreign birth made him unpopular during his lifetime among envious American artists who could not paint a wall to save their lives. Their spleen has tainted the literature about him to this day, and the dismal condition of his rotunda and rooms until just recently, and the all too great visibility of his atelier's hybrid and now grossly overpainted corridor decorations, have prevented art historians from giving this great master of the mural his just due. 2 The purpose of this essay, then, is to demonstrate Brumidi's skill as a great environmental muralist by reconstructing and interpreting his intentions for the rotunda's dome and frieze (Plate 48). These intentions must be reconstructed, since the state of the surviving documentation does not permit easy proof of what the eye can see. And this requires some historical background.

The murals in the U. S. Capitol were created in three phases. The first, from 1817 to 1855, saw the installation of eight historical murals in the rotunda. These included John Trumbull Declaration of Independence, Resignation of Washington, and the surrenders of Bourgogne and Cornwallis- four of some sixteen history paintings Trumbull proposed at various times in the hope of creating in the rotunda a formal panorama of the Revolution. Installed later were John Chapman Baptism of Pocahontas, Robert Weir Embarkation of the Pilgrims, John Vanderlyn Landing of Columbus, and William Powell Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto. These works constituted the first public, monumental mural environment in the country--and if they seem a bit oddly composed today, it is well to remember that they were conceived to be seen beneath a hemispherical dome which sprang from the entablature directly above them--not at the bottom of a 150-foot well. 3

The second phase, which saw the erection of that well, begins about 1855, the time the last of these historical murals was installed. By mid-century it was obvious that the Capitol could no longer comfortably contain the legislature of an expanding nation. Beginning in 1851, the edifice conceived by the architect William Thornton and modified by Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch was extended by Thomas U. Walter. He added the present Senate and House wings, and set a soaring, cast-iron dome over the old rotunda. The task of actually erecting the additions soon came under the supervision of Montgomery Cunningham Meigs of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. A man of action by training and instinct, he was also intelligent, well read, trained in the arts of drawing and watercolor, and sensitive to the finer points of his daunting task. Thus he was eager to see that the new areas of the Capitol were embellished with works of art worthy of their purpose. He engaged the services of numerous painters, sculptors, and artisans, the two most famous being Emanuel Leutze and the still controversial Constantino Brumidi.

This Italian muralist undertook true frescoes throughout the building, most notably in the canopy of the dome and around the rotunda's 300-foot-long frieze. He had a large number of assistants and presided over what amounted to an

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