Capitol Art Works
History of Famous Paintings in the Rotunda
First Begun in 1817
"Signing of the Declaration" by Col. Trumbull
Last One Plalced In 1850
Prof. Morse, Inventory of the Telegraph, an Applicant,
But Failed to Get Contract

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, January 30, 1910 [pt. 4, p. 1]

Long before the old building, the original Capitol, was ready to receive works of art, statuary or painting that subject had engaged attention. Even before the exact site of the building had been fixed there was a suggestion made by Dr. William Thornton that a placee be left on which to erect a statue of Columbus. There was, too, the project of erecting a monument of Washington in the Capitol, and after his death in 1799 with the erection of the monument measures were taken by Congress for entombing his remains in the building at a future time. To this Mrs. Washington gave her consent, but after the completion of the central part when arrangements were being made for the removal of the remains on the centenary of his birth, February 22, 1832, objections were made by his relatives and by the people of Virginia, and in deference to that sentiment, expressed in the resolutions of the general assembly of Virginia, nothing was done.

Before the invasion of the British and destruction of the buildings in August, 1814, there had been some statuary placed in the two wings, also a few paintings. It was while the work of restoring the two wings was in progress that sculture and painting for the building was considered in an act of Congress, and not infrequently did articles on the subject appear in public print. The work of Giovani Andrei and Guiseppe Franzoni in the halls of Congress had attracted attention, and the completion of the rotunda beneath the dome was looked forward to with expectancy that works of art depicting scenes in our history would find a place therein.

National Portrait Gallery
Portraits of many who had been prominent in the days of '76 were then obtainable, for a number were yet alive. Editor Joel Mead, in the National Register, in 1817, urged the establishment of a gallery of the portraits while it was possible to procure them, and in the historical paintings of Trumbull many portraits of such are preserved.

Col. John Trumbull, brother of "brother Jonathan," the war governor of Connecticut, who was as a brigade major, military secretary to Washington, in the revolution, and had served in diplomatic and other capacities, had become prominent as a painter. He had studied with Sir Benjamin West in London, and by his works, which included "The Battle of Bunker Hill," had attained a high rank in the profession and had the advantage of knowing the originals of the figures in his paintings. January 13, 1817, a resolution of the senate directed his employment by the President to compose and execute a painting in commemoration of the "Signing of the Declaration of Independence." February 6 following a joint resolution authorized him to paint four most important events of the revolution, a month later $8,000 being appropriated on account. Col. Trumbull proceeded with his commission, the other subjects than the Declaration being the "Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga," the "Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown" and "Washington Resigning His Commission at Annapolis." The work had been completed about 1825, at which time the rotunda was ready for their reception, the artist being paid $32,000 in all and the frames costing $1,200.

Damaged by Dampness
At this time there was a circular opening inclosed by an iron railing in the center of the floor of the rotunda, and from the crypt or lower rotunda damp air ascended; also from the walls and from outside atmosphere the paintings were liable to injury. In fact, in a few months there were indications of mildew and May 26, 1828, the commissioner of public buildings was directed to take measures to secure them from the effects of dampness under Col. Trumbull's direction. The latter made a report to the Speaker of the House in December following. He regarded the admission of damp air from the crypt as the great cause of the evil and recommended the opening in the floor be closed, and it was done. He had had all the paintings taken from the frames, removed to a dry room, thoroughly examined, cleaned and dried and the backs treated to a thick coat of beeswax and turpentine applied hot and rubbed in with hot irons. To prevent any possible exudation of moisture from the walls they were carefully plastered with hydraulic cement and a space left behind the canvas for ventilation, etc.

He also noted that the paintings were liable to damage by repeated handling and one had been cut, apparently by a penknife. This would he had repaired but the scar remains. The pictures were replaced in their frames and have since been the most interesting and highest prized of the numerous works of art which have been placed in the building. In the meantime, at Col. Trumbull's suggestion there were changes made about the old dome to improve the light.

Morse an Applicant
In 1826 the National Academy of Design had been formed in New York by many artists with Prof. S.F.B. Morse as president, and numbers looked for commissions to fill the remaining four panels. Prof. Morse, who had made a success in modeling "The Death of Hercules" and in painting taken a high rank, devoted four years, 1829-33, in Europe to the study of historical painting, in view of obtaining a commission, and prepared a sketch of “The Germ of the Republic” on his return. John Vanderlyn of New York, a protege of Aaron Burr, in his palmy days one of the oldest of American artists, was regarded as sure of an order. There were many anxious for the honor, first and last the claims of over being made. Mr. Inman proposed to paint the "Emigration of Daniel Boone" and others had other subjects. In June, 1836, contracts were authorized to be made with John Vanderlyn, Mr. Inman, Robert Weir and John G. Chapman for four paintings illustrating the discovery of America, the settlement of the United States, the history of the revolution or the adoption of the Constitution.

The committee, February 28, 1837, reported that two had agreed to undertake the work, and they expected the others would, but some years would be required. March 3 following an eight-thousand-dollar appropriation was made, and the four artists took the work. Soon after Mr. Inman, on account of his health, gave up the work, and suggested that Prof. Morse be employed, but the commission was not then given him; nor ten years after, when many friends urged that he be selected.

Hung in 1843
Under subsequent appropriations aggregating $40,000 Vanderlyn, Weir and Chapman continued the work, and the "Landing of the Pilgrims" by Weir was placed on the panel in 1843; the "Baptism of Pocahontas," by Chapman in 1845 and "Columbus' Discovery of America," by Vanderlynn in 1846. While these pictures have been highly praised by the general public, that of Pocahontas from the fact that Chapman, the artist, was a native of Alexandria and the scene being in Virginia, his successful treatment of the subject was a matter of great local pride.

About 1846 the painting for the last remaining panel was given to William H. Powell, who had been selected over Morse and others. His subject "De Soto's Discovery of the Mississippi," was finished about 1850, and thus eight important events in the history of the world and nation are represented in the Capitol.

Prof. Morse's "Hercules" is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but his invention of the telegraph has spread his name throughout the world.