Columbus relief

The image of Columbus is pervasive in the U.S. Capitol complex; since the late nineteenth century, over a dozen images have been displayed, while many others have been proposed yet never commissioned, destroyed by fire, or removed to new locations. According to the official Quincentenary survey of Columbus imagery in the Capitol, Columbus as a subject appeared as early as 1822, with the most recent commission the 1940 Buell Mullen mural in the Hispanic Room of the Library of Congress.

The image of Columbus throughout the Capitol is fairly consistent, although the physical representations vary, an inheritance of early portraitist's divergent views of the man. Although contemporaries, including his son Ferdinand (also called Hernando), described him as tall, with a fair complexion, aquiline nose, and red hair which went white at 30, artists continue to insist on a more heavy-set, swarthy-complected vision of Columbus. The moral vision of Columbus remains consistent throughout, however. He is portrayed as pious and thoughtful, qualities often remarked upon by his contemporaries, yet courageous and bold, the reflected image Americans wished to see of themselves.

Brumidi Frieze Constantino Brumidi, an immigrant Italian painter, had a special fondness for representing Columbus in his work of the nineteenth century. As the chief fresco artist in the Capitol, Brumidi chose Columbus as his subject on three separate occasions. The first is Christopher Columbus--Discovery of 1859, a ceiling decoration in the President's Room of the Senate Wing. He is shown with a globe, a chart, a compass, and a sextant, and is found in relation to three other American "worthies": Americus Vespucis--Exploration; Benjamin Franklin--History; and William Brewster--Religion. As with other representations, he is portrayed as thoughtful yet bold, dark haired and olive complected. This theme continues in Brumidi's lunette in the west corridor of the Senate Wing, Columbus and the Indian Maiden, c. 1875. He is depicted physically in a similar vein, yet the piety and thoughtfulness have given way to bold exploration and confidence, seen in his "unveiling" of the Indian maiden on the Bahamian beach. Finally, Brumidi included Columbus's landing as the first group in his monumental Rotunda frieze of 1878. The physical interpretation has shifted to a more "authentic" rendering, and again, the vision has changed slightly: he is the pious, yet still bold, explorer and missionary.

Columbus can be found elsewhere in the Capitol complex and Washington D.C. area. Augustus G. Heaton's The Recall of Columbus of 1882 is in the east corridor of the Senate Wing; Paul Wayland Bartlett's Columbus, 1897, gazes down on the Main Reading Room from a balustrade in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress; numerous statues can be found at the Smithsonian (removed, with others Columbus painting in Rotunda including Greenough's The Rescue, because they were considered inappropriate and insensitive), including Houdon's Washington, on which a bust of Columbus is carved in the base, and Luigi Persico's Discovery of America (1844); and finally Lorado Taft and Daniel Burnham's Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain, erected in Union Station Plaza in 1912.

Nineteenth century Americans were in search of a history, a pantheon of heroes to reflect their aspirations and national character. With the increasing fragmentation of the age, Americans sought a hero who could cut across regional, political, and ethnic boundaries. They discovered Columbus and installed him in their pantheon, the Capitol, with increasing frequency throughout the 1800s. Although representations may vary, the message is always the same: Columbus was the first "founding father", providing a history and hero everyone could agree upon, whose success lay in his piety, industriousness, ingeniousness, and bravado. The celebration of Columbus as a national hero may have become less important in the context of the Capitol in the twentieth century, but not in the country at large: by the late 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt designated October 12 a national holiday: Columbus Day. While the battle may rage over the appropriateness of Columbus as a national hero, the power of his image to reflect the self-image of the Century of Progress is undeniable, and the legacy of this hero-worship is resonant throughout the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

History of the Doors | The Doors | Columbus in History