North American Art

Capitol Building Art: Oh Say Can You See

Rachel Witte 24 January 2021 min Read

The United States’ Capitol Building has received a lot of attention in the past weeks. And if you have seen any news on the U.S. recently, you will know exactly why that is. Beyond those reasons, however, there is more to the Capitol Building than most people may realize. What many people may not realize is that there are over 300 pieces of art throughout the Capitol Building.

National Statuary Hall, statues in the US Capitol Building, Capitol Building art
National Statuary Hall Collection, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA. Architect of the Capitol.

Let us take a look at a mere short list of those pieces.

U.S. Capitol Building Art

The art inside the U.S. Capitol Building details America’s history. However accurate or exaggerated it may be. From the early years of exploration and interactions with Native Americans to a ceiling fresco depicting George Washington ascending into Heaven. There is so much to see and analyze.

Apotheosis of Washington

It may look more like a Michelangelo or Raphael Renaissance fresco. But the rotunda mural is a 19th-century creation. At 180 feet off the ground, and 4,664 square feet in total size, Brumidi’s Italian-inspired design contains symbols meant to represent the U.S. government. The immediate figures around Washington represent Liberty and Victory. The other 13 in the middle represent the original 13 colonies in America.

Constantino Brumidi, George Washing ascends into Heaven surrounded by allegorical figures, rotunda fresco, Capitol Building art
Constantino Brumidi, Apotheosis of Washington, 1865, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA. Architect of the Capitol.

The Baptism of Pocahontas

Most of us know the Disney version of Pocahontas: the Native-American Powhatan princess who saved and subsequently fell in love with an English explorer. Though animated films tell an aesthetically pleasing story, it is far from the truth. But as the Christian religion has played an important role in the foundations of the U.S., so too does this painting represent that moralistic notion.

Painting depicting the baptism of Pocahontas, Capitol Building, Washington DC
John Gadsby Chapman, Baptism of Pocahontas, 1840, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA. Architect of the Capitol.

Interestingly enough, it is not the only Pocahontas themed work in the Capitol Building.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

Emanuel Leutze, mural, US Capitol Building art
Emanuel Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1862, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA. Architect of the Capitol.

Emanuel Leutze’s larger than life mural is located in the west stairway of the Capitol Building. It contains references to much of what you may know about the westward expansion of America. Women, children, men in coonskin hats, covered wagons pulled by horses and oxen. And on the edges of the painting are more references to explorers and historical moments.

Frieze of American History and the Birth of Aviation

Frieze of American History, detailing numerous events in the course of America
Frieze of American History, various artists, ca. 1859-1951, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA. Architect of the Capitol.

Over the course of nearly a century, several artists painted the continuous frieze in chronological order. It begins with Constantino Brumidi’s Landing of Columbus and ends with Allyn Cox’s The Birth of Aviation.

Allyn Cox, The Birth of Aviation, 1903, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA.
Allyn Cox, The Birth of Aviation, 1903, United States Capitol, Washington DC, USA. Architect of the Capitol.

Overall: U.S. Capitol Building Art

Overall, the art serves as an idealistic presence in the seat of the nation’s political parties. The pieces serve as a window into history and moments of victory. And while we know the history of the U.S. to be muddled with the horrific realities of how it came to be, the art inside the capitol building attempts to shine a positive light on the many people and events that built the United States from its inception over two centuries ago, to today in 2021.

Current Events in the U.S. Capitol Building

The overall purpose of this article is not to take any certain political stance. However, we do not live in a vacuum. Furthermore, the events of the world around us have always affected how we see and view art. With that said, more recent images of the Capitol Building capture National Guard members inside as the government prepares for the 2021 presidential inauguration on January 20th.

Recent image of US National Guard members resting in front of a painting in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building surrounded by a statue and bust
Kent Nishimura, photo of members of the National Guard sleeping in front of Robert W. Weir’s Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843, Capitol Rotunda, Washington DC, USA. Los Angeles Times/Getty Images.

It is quite an interesting sight to behold. The works inside of the Capitol and surrounding government buildings represent important moments in the growth of America…events that aided in developing the U.S. democratic process. It is jarring to see everything happening in the Capitol under the same halls that house said artwork. If you are not sure what to think of everything, join the rest of us who will be scratching at our heads for a while longer. Especially those of us living in the U.S.

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