Capitol Art Works
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
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
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
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
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.