The United States Capitol is a building that symbolizes the qualities of the American Nation while simultaneously assuming numerous material functions. It is a veritable manifestation of e pluribus unum: popularly elected representatives from each of the fifty states assemble to construct legislation based on the needs of those citizens who support them. It is also a building where the powers of the Executive Branch are monitored and checked, so that one person might not dictate a sovereign will to many. The building also fulfills a social role; it is a place where foreign dignitaries are received, where deceased national heroes lie in state, and where ordinary tourists are attracted by the thousands.

If these type of material concerns were paramount, they theoretically could take place in any building with four walls, a roof, and a sign that says "U.S. Capitol" on the front door. However, the aesthetic nature of the building seems of equal if not greater importance. As Charles Sumner stated on the Senate Floor in July 1866:

". . .[the Capitol's physical] situation is grander than that of the Roman Capitol. . . It has beauty of form and sublimity in proportion, even if it lacks originality in conception. In itself it is a work of art. (Sumner 168)

Sumner continued his address by stating that, since the construction of the building was of such a high artistic quality that "[i]t should not receive in the way of ornamentation anything which is not a work of art." (168). The fact that the purpose of the speech was to block Miss Vinnie Ream's comission as sculptor for the full-length statue of Abraham Lincoln, rather than to extoll the virtues of national art and architecture, signifies that the question of exactly what kind of art should be displayed inside the Capitol has been a source of debate over the years.

One of the largest collections of art displayed in the Capitol is in the form of portraiture, and there are many variables to consider when studying it. Perhaps the most unavoidable is that the majority of the works are located in areas restricted to the general public. Unlike the grand historical paintings of the Rotunda, available for public consumption and inspiration, only members of Congress are ever meant to see the portraits on a regular basis. In addition, the occasional movement of different pieces from room to room over time suggests that particular individuals from our political heritage-- and the national ideals they embodied in their lifetime-- are chosen to be associated with the function of that particular room. The evocation of mythic figures in these rooms is highly significant; decisions regarding which image of the figures to display presents a further layer of meaning. These issues seem to be addressed with each portrait that hangs in the building, which leads to the conclusion that their final placement conveys a rather deliberate symbolic code to the viewer.

A comparison with other paintings in the Capitol may illuminate this. The historical paintings which make up the group in the Rotunda, and a few other notable works such as The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, commemorate single moments in time which most citizens and lawmakers agree to be both highly important and highly admirable. These scenes, whether they be a decisive battle in a War for Independence, the travel to new lands, or the dedication of a Document of Liberty, all commemorate the crossing of a threshold in the country's development. It is this crossing alone which is celebrated in the painting, and its qualifying historical context is therefore diminished. These moments become essentially disconnected from the amoral course of history, and are transformed into wholly benevolent events which impart a sense of pride in the acheivements they represent.

At first glance, the portraiture in the Capitol's collection would not seem to be as free from the deflating realities of history. The average portrait found in the Capitol initially looks like little more than a realistic rendering of a person's likeness; the immediate reaction upon viewing the painting is likely to be a recollection (if possible!) of the career of the figure in question, as well as his overall historical significance. While it might be relatively easy to detach the context from an idealized moment of national identity, it is not quite so with people. Unlike The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, an instant free of conflict in American memory, a sizeable amount of the individuals enshrined throughout the building lived long enough to occasionally stray from the path of wisdom. Despite the faults and foibles of these men, the portraits which are displayed capture them at particular moments in their careers when they symbolized ideals which-- like the scenes in the Rotunda-- are both highly important and highly admirable. In this manner, the portraits inspire, guide, even admonish the country's currently elected legislators with patriotic values. The collection of portraits found within the United States Capitol constitutes an artistic and symbolic representation of national ideals, whose individual locations emphasize the function of the rooms they occupy.


The greatest concentration of portraiture is in the main corridor of the Senate wing. This hallway runs from the Small Senate Rotunda to the perpendicular east-west corridor, which leads into the Senate Chamber. The portraits which hang here align themselves roughly into two groups: those which were purchased by the Joint Committee on the Library, and those which were graciously received as gifts. The Joint Committee is the official body empowered to acquire fine art for the Capitol.

Among the purchased paintings found in this corridor, none were expressly commissioned by the United States Government. Most of the works were bought in the late nineteenth century, the period in which Constantino Brumidi was decorating the building with his memorable frescoes. Since the works were already extant at the time of purchase, and the Joint Committee was well apprised of what it was buying, acquisition of the works displayed in this area would seem to represent a careful assemblage of beloved legislators. The portraits of John Adams, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster were purchased in 1881-- the latter three from photographer Matthew Brady for a total of four thousand dollars (Fairman 321). All of these men dedicated their entire adult lives to the developing nation, and symbolize honorable, though variegated, ideals of statesmanship.

Over the span of some sixty years in political affairs, John Adams was ever a bastion of conservatism. Unfortunately, such a prolonged public lifetime resulted in a decidedly mixed bag of achievements: He was an ardent supporter of the Revolutionary cause, but defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. He enjoyed the great honor of succeeding Washington in the fledgling Executive Branch, but the historic tenure was marred by his endorsement of the Alien and Sedition Acts. While he was one of the driving forces behind the Declaration of Independence, he regularly found himself in opposition to his more radical colleagues-- like his old nemesis Thomas Jefferson. Adams may enjoy the legendary prestige of being one of the original American patriots, but in his day he often espoused beliefs that set him against the majority.

The image of Adams which was chosen by the Joint Committee is that of an older man, who can an look back over his long career and remember protesting the Stamp Act, convening the Continental Congresses, undertaking diplomatic missions all over Europe, enjoying two terms as vice-president and one as president. This is a venerated though not ancient patriot, whose tireless and unending service to his country towers above the sum of his less popular decisions. The somber quality of the oils seems befitting a dour New Englander, yet his face does not seem to reflect the same level of gravity as many of the other portraits nearby. This comfortable expression might further evoke John Adams the patrician, who with generations of political Adamses to follow him was a Founding Father in a way George Washington never was.

Clay, Calhoun, and Webster were the men who made up the "Great Triumvirate" which dominated American politics in its second generation. From the time of the Twelfth Congress, when young War Hawk representatives Clay and Calhoun stirred up the War of 1812, to the Union-saving Compromise of 1850, these three men orchestrated some of the most significant legislation of their time. Henry Clay, "the Great Compromiser", represented the state of Kentucky in both houses of Congress and was Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. He actually retired from politics on several different occasions, only to return in his country's time of need; for this reason he evokes the Roman myth of Cincinnatus, who left his plow to fight for the Republic. The unperturbed expression on his face in this portrait might indicate self-confidence in the knowledge of his many historic accomplishments, such as the Compromises in 1820 and 1850. The piece idealizes the coarse, whiskey-drinking, gambling side of his otherwise brilliant personality, and so its overall effect seems to be that of quiet and modest dignity.

John C. Calhoun has the dubious honor of being remembered as the most passionate defender of slavery and antebellum Southern culture; for this reason one might question his inclusion in any area of a building dedicated to Liberty. However, his position as Secretary of War under James Monroe, his two terms as vice president, and most of all his decades as Representative and Senator from South Carolina, might present some mitigating circumstances-- especially in a corridor traveled by men and women likely to ascribe the prospect of enjoying such a career to the stuff dreams are made of. Calhoun was a fervent nationalist in his early years, and exhibited the same defiance to his opponents then as he did later on as the philosophical core of the States' Rights movement. Contrary to popular belief, Calhoun was never one of the stereotypical southern cavaliers that inundated Charleston high society (Peterson 26); his portrait more accurately depicts an almost puritanical figure, whose countenance is one of gravity rather than frivolity. Like Henry Clay, Calhoun degenerated into a frail and wizened man in Congress, and despite the strength of his convictions was too weak to read his final address before the Senate in 1850 (460). The Calhoun in this painting is old, but still at the top of his game; in this context it is significant that his the only three-quarter-length portrait in the hallway, and one of the few who is standing.

In contrast to Calhoun's dignified presence is the portrait of Daniel Webster. This extremely dark piece by John Neagle presents a rather bland image of "the Yankee Demosthenes"; the only element that attracts the viewer is the waxen, sallow face. This is not the best image of Webster to be found in the building, yet his stature is such that there would be no way to exclude him from this corridor and still present a complete historical perspective of American politics.

The next work to be acquired was of Charles Sumner, in 1886. Seated against a dark background, Sumner's fair facial complexion and white vest draw the viewer's attention inward, perhaps implying that nobler qualities could be found in his heart than in his outward appearance. A handful of books upon a table at the left side of the painting could be an illusion to his prolific career as a essayist and public speaker; indeed, the 1969 edition of his "Complete Works" consists of some 20 volumes. Sumner is principally remembered for his strident advocacy of African-American emancipation and civil rights issues in general. He is also the only man to ever be physically assaulted for his beliefs in the halls of the Senate; his infamous beating was dealt by the cane of Preston Brooks, Congressman from South Carolina, after Sumner's equally infamous "Crime Against Kansas" speech in 1856. This portrait's physical placement within the corridor is such that it sits almost directly across from that of Daniel Webster (Fairman 321). As both were longtime Senators from Massachusetts, passionate Federalists, and arguably the most electrifying orators to ever grace the Senate Floor, the two men form a nucleus amidst the other great men presiding over the hallway.

Overall, it is Sumner's kind of courage and conviction that truly exemplifies the figures depicted here. Just about all of them stood up for personal, if not wholly patriotic, morals at one time or another while in Congress. Adams defended the Constitution against powerful Antifederalists; Webster made his famous reply to Robert Hayne over the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s; Clay went to bat for the Union and his "American System" so many times it would be difficult to count them all. Calhoun stuck to what he believed in too, even though he was moving the opposite direction as most of his colleagues.

We need not even mention the accomplishments of Patrick Henry or Abraham Lincoln along with the aforementioned Senators' deeds of merit. One of the first Americans to defy the British Empire, Henry served as member of the House of Burgesses as well as governor of Virginia. He was also involved in more than a few unpopular issues, such as his favorable treatment of British loyalists after the Revolution, but any likeness of him is liable to conjure up "give me Liberty or give me Death" before the other qualifying remarks can be made about his character. The piece is able to accomplish this for a couple of reasons. First of all, only a couple of accurate pictures exist of Henry (Fairman 348), and the image presented here is in fact modeled after one them-- a Thomas Sully portrait (Art in the Unites States Capitol, 120). Secondly, and perhaps disappointingly, pretty much the only thing taught about Patrick Henry are those seven unforgettable words.

The portrait of Abraham Lincoln seems a little out of place in this corridor: one might expect to find his likeness in the Senate Majority Leader's room, which represents more of a "first-string" collection of national heroes. However, as president during the country's greatest internal crisis, Lincoln reflected the ideals of faith, courage, and perserverance as well or better than any of the others who are enshrined in this area. The portrait was done by Freeman Thorp in the 1870s, and was acquired by the Joint Committee on the Library in 1920. The painting is slightly more stylized than some of works discussed so far. With the advent of photography in Lincoln's era, the need for painters to capture realistic images of their subjects for the sake of posterity diminished (Simon 19). There is an abundance of Lincoln photographs, and for this reason Thorp seems to have taken a bit more artistic license.

The painting has a two-dimensional, "primitive" feel. The contrast between the deep lines on his cheeks and the simple fleshtones on his brow produces an almost cartoon-ish visage. This folk- art approach seems to be appropriate for the Rail-Splitter, in contrast to the some of more serious portraits like Webster's or Calhoun's. Since a crucial element of the Lincoln mythos is his lack of aristocratic pretensions (Wechter 245-6), the folksy quality of the work profoundly enhances his personal character. In spite of the artistic nonconformity, all the necessary elements of the Lincoln icon are still here: the familiar beard, the black suit, even the wart on the right side of his face. The artist has combined trademark components of The Lincoln Image with an unconventional approach to create a satisfying portrait.

The last in the group of purchased paintings found here is that of William B. Allison. It "was claimed" (Fairman 322) that Allison had the longest uninterrupted career in the Senate, and as he was contemplating a run for his seventh term of office at the time of his death in 1908 this is quite plausible. He was one of the first to join the Republican Party in the 1860s, and his skill at coalition-building and deal-making helped make the party a robust political institution. He was the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for twenty-seven years, and his pro-business philosophy endeared him to representatives of the Money Power both in and out of Congress. The painting by William A. Reaser was bought less that a year after the Senator's death, which "was somewhat of a departure from the customary practice" (Fairman 322) up to that point. His lengthy service notwithstanding, the hasty move to memorialize Allison may be a result of his popularity among his Republican colleagues.

The three portraits which were gifts-- Justin S. Morrill, Joseph T. Robinson, and Charles L. McNary-- have not been branded into the national memory quite so deeply as the eminent legislators they share wall space with. They are nevertheless linked to important moments in American history, although they might only seem relevant in the context of their location in a Senate corridor. Justin S. Morrill was a powerful man in his day, having acted as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee during a twelve year service in the House of Representatives and Chairman of the Finance Committee in his thirty-two year tenure in the Senate. He was the author of an important tariff in 1860, and is also the father of the Land Grant College Act. He can thus be remembered for the merits of national economic interest, educational progress, and a distinguished forty-four years in Congress. Within the walls of the Capitol, Morrill might be more fondly remembered as the man who, as chair of the Committee on Public Grounds, wrote legislation providing for fountains, terraces, and gardens around the Capitol, the main building of the Library of Congress, and the conversion of the Old House Chamber to the National Statuary Hall.

The portrait of Joseph T. Robinson was executed in 1934 but not given to the Joint Committee until 1937. The longtime progressive from Arkansas fought for railroad and child labor regulation, women's suffrage, and helped create the Tennessee Valley Authority. He ran as Al Smith's vice president in 1928, but became a loyal FDR supporter after this defeat. His ten years as a Representative and twenty-three as Senator won him the respect political longevity carries in Congress; in 1923 he was elected Democratic majority leader and held the post until his death. He is one of the few southwesterners to be included here.

Charles L. McNary is the final member of these lesser-known Senators, yet he may well be one of the most respected in terms of specific Senate interests. McNary was a longtime representative from Oregon, a leader of the Republican minority throughout the New Deal era. He was a friend of labor and an ardent conservationist. However, those who have served in the Senate are surely most proud of him as the man who stopped Franklin Delano Roosevelt from packing the Supreme Court in 1937. Since the Court was preventing him from enacting certain New Deal programs, FDR (with the aid of his legislative pointman, Senator Robinson) declared that he was going to appoint six new members to the bench who would tip the judicial scales in his direction. The Constitution dictates that the number of Justices be nine, and Roosevelt's action was thus clearly illegal. More central to the issue, however, is the fact that the powers of confirmation for any presidential appointee, including Supreme Court Justices, is an express privilege of the Senate. McNary's efforts to stop this unconstitutional action was a classic example of a check on Executive Branch, and more significantly a triumphant reinforcement of Senate authority.

In this fashion the images of Congressional ancestors constitute a manifold ideal of national service. While looking at the men in these portraits the viewer is conscious of the need to uphold Federal and Senate power, while nevertheless standing for individual liberties. One is also reminded of the qualities of literacy, dignity, and rhetorical persuasion while traveling through this corridor. This pantheon of patriots is more than a collection of graven images; it is also a symbolic taxonomy of admirable and inspiring characteristics that should be fostered in any successful legislator.

These ideals are most deliberately exemplified in the Senate reception room. When this room was painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1880s, he left five spaces for medallion portraits of "great men yet to come" (Art in the United States Capitol, 34). On one wall of this ornately decorated room is a fresco of George Washington conferring with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. As the reception room would ordinarily be the one place guests of state might get a chance to spend time in, the presentation of a seated Washington mediating between the two youthful geniuses might likely give the impression of America as a source wisdom and brilliance.

In addition to this impressive group portrait, the five medallions-- John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., and Robert A. Taft-- have come to be known as "the Famous Five" since they were unveiled in 1959. In describing the legislation authorizing the portraits, one author wrote that S.R. 145

". . .presents us with an official list of heroic figures, selected by the Senate of the United States after serious contemplation and with the expert advice of some 13 dozen scholars" (Alexander xii).

In an instance of uncanny historical coincidence, John F. Kennedy was the chairman of the committee charged with selecting the individuals. He wrote in his foreword to Holmes Alexander's book that each of the Senators "made a distinct historic impression during the period of his public service, and each has become a part of America's broad constitutional heritage." In fact, Kennedy focused on Taft's stance against the questionable justice of the Nuremburg Trials in one of his Profiles in Courage (Alexander 203). Regardless of their individual fortitude, they as a group present an admirable and well-balanced set of ideals which visitors to the room might take home with them as further icons of American excellence

Of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, little remains to be uncovered that is not found in their portraits in the main corridor. However, a marked difference between the images in the two rooms is that those in the reception room depict much younger men, and thus have the effect of appearing more virile and powerful to guests than they might otherwise. Calhoun still has some black in his trademark coif, and his expression is far more self- confident and defiant than the older likeness. While Clay's serene youthfulness is essentially nondescript, Webster's image is that of a vibrant, red-cheeked, firebrand orator. This is the unabashed Federalist who "sprang from the granite" (Peterson 38) of his native New Hampshire in 1813, still wearing eighteenth century fashions. As a group this triad constitutes the paramount ideals and concerns of the nation before the Civil War: a strong Federal presence in domestic and foreign affairs, balanced with a respect for the individual state. All three maintained strong ties with their constituencies while serving long periods in Congress, and were at their most dynamic in moments of crisis. These are the all-stars of the Senate's political heritage.

The other two members of the Famous Five represent a more recent duo who often reinforced the other three's ideals, but also introduced vital concerns of the modern era. "Battlin' Bob" LaFollette was not even a particularly effective Senator, although he served for nineteen years until his death in 1925. He was, however, a dramatic iconoclast during this and his early tenure in the House of Representatives; more importantly he became one of the greatest populists of his era during years as governor of Wisconsin. Like the previously mentioned three, he was a riveting and energetic public speaker who swayed his audience as much through the power of his oratory as through the actual content of his oration. He was a steadfast friend of the farmer, and a sworn enemy of the Money Power. LaFollette was an exemplary representative of the Midwest, as was Ohio Senator Robert Taft. While Taft is most controversially remembered for the Taft-Hartley Labor Management Relations Act, he was also an early proponent of welfare legislation. In addition, the facts of his courageous struggle with terminal cancer, and the memory of his death in 1956, add another heroic dimension to his character.

A third notable collection of portraits is located in room S-210, the private office of the Senate Majority Leader. As befitting the privilege of rank, some of the best work in terms of quality and subject matter is found here. As with the other rooms, their symbolic nature as a group evokes ideals that the occupant or passer-by would do well to emulate. However, their individual characteristics should addressed first.

The portrait of Washington is by Gilbert Stuart, the premier American portrait artist of his era. It is a version of the classic "Athanaeuem bust", the most popular likeness Stuart painted of him (Lee 19). There is not much to say about this image, save that it is the Washington most associated with his role as our Founding Father. The painting might actually elicit further discussion, in the present context, were it not located in this room. It is here because, without Washington, there would simply be no symbolic foundation to build upon.

The painting of Thomas Jefferson is an 1856 work by Thomas Sully, arguably the greatest of the second generation of American portraitists. One of the first paintings to be purchased by the Joint Committee on the Library, it was offered in a set with a portrait of General Dearborn and the same Andrew Jackson that is in the Majority Leader's office. Only the Jefferson was bought at the time, and when the Jackson piece was acquired in 1922 it was at a sum four times greater than the asking price in 1874 (Fairman 348). This fact surely alludes to its importance in this grouping.

The Jackson is also by Sully, but it presents a deep contrast to the Jefferson. While the Jefferson portrait is one of the lightest in the entire building, the Jackson image is a composition of rich, somber hues. The canvasses are almost the exact same size, but Old Hickory seems to tower over the erudite Sage of Monticello; this may be due the proportionally small size of Jefferson's head or the almost pyramidical structure of Jackson's body. Jackson has an imposing overall effect here, but upon second reflection the shoulders seem to be sagging under a great burden; this and his mature countenance convey the image's more subtle qualities. This is not Andrew Jackson the General, whose majestically virile statue stands among the select few in the Rotunda. Instead it is the politician who fought for the average citizen against the National Bank, and fought for the Union in the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. While these contributions might be overlooked when viewing younger or more bellicose versions of Jackson, the image seen by Senate leaders in this room brings them to the surface.

William Cogswell's portrait of Ulysses S. Grant depicts its subject in a realistically informal pose, slightly slumped and with his coat unbuttoned. The acquisition of a portrait in military dress is probably not a wholly metaphorical choice, since the achievements of General Grant are quite a different thing from those of President Grant. The warrior theme is emphasized by the smoky background, and a wispy red lower foreground that could be fire. His expression is one of thoughtful, tranquil resolve, a man who knows the price of war but is not afraid to pay it when necessary. This is not necessarily the man Henry Adams dubbed pteraspis, an ageless and unthinking shark. It is definitely not the boy who was nicknamed "Useless Grant" (Wechter 318); rather the grim yet serene determination of the piece indicates that the viewer is looking at the man who came to be known as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

As a set, the best qualities evoked by each of these images synthesize to form a coherent theme. All of these men reflect the wisdom that comes of experience, yet it is the classic image of Washington that best reflects the patriarchal nature of leadership. Washington's humble acceptances and resignations of posts of immense national responsibility also link him to the Cincinnatus myth, the ideal of national service. One of Washington's few shortcomings, that being the "tortoise pace" (Wechter 115) of his thought processes, is offset by Jackson's decisive and forceful character. Jackson's achievement as overwhelming winner of the majority of the popular vote in three presidential campaigns (Wechter 200) may also remind the viewer of where power in government is supposed to originate-- the people. As the first American populist, he occupies a vital niche in this collection. While both of these men had successful military careers, the images found here are of them as civilians; however, the uniformed presence of General Grant provides the necessary martial balance. The final piece of the puzzle is Jefferson, whose inclusion here might seem redundant if only his political contributions are considered. What he specifically lends to this room is his reputation as the great humanist of his era, a quality that seems too often overlooked by the professional politicians of the current age. All together, the portraits in this office form a group not wholly unlike the Muses of Ancient Greece: each appeals to the devotee based on their independent qualities, yet may combine to form a harmonious spirit that is equally inspirational.


The works exhibited here from the House of Representatives' wing of the Capitol are fewer in number, yet this is primarily due to the fact that a number of portraits has been omitted. As tradition dictates, each Speaker of the House gets his portrait painted and hung within the long Speaker's Lobby; there are well over a hundred portraits that have hung in this area since its construction. The portraits were initially donated to the House Committee on the Library, but since 1910 legal provisions have been made for their execution (Art in the United States Capitol, 37). Most of them are quite straightforward, and beg little analysis; likewise, the historical stature of the majority of the Speakers is small compared to most of the men whose portraits hang in the Senate wing. Suffice it to say that this large group and its presence in the Speaker's Lobby is symbolic of the honor and prestige as would betoken such an office.

There are, however, a few interesting portraits in other areas of the House Wing. The two most accessible are those of the Lafayette and Washington, which rest on the left and right sides, respectively, of the Speaker's Rostrum in the House Chamber. These large, full-length portraits in the "grand manner"; each convey significant themes, and each has a notable history of its own. In December of 1884 Lafayette addressed a joint session of Congress assembled in the Old Hall of the House of Representatives, the first foreigner to do so. Two weeks later Henry Clay read the following letter, sent from France to the Speaker of the House:

"SIR: I sent by the ship Cadmus Captain Francis Allyn (who had kindly promised to take it on to Washington) a full-length portrait painted by me, which I pray you do me the honor to accept for the Hall of the House of Representatives over which you preside.
As the friend and admirer of General Lafayette and of American liberty, I feel happy to have it in my power to express in this way my grateful feelings for the national honors which the free people of the United States are at this moment bestowing on the friend and companion of your illustrious Washington, on the man who has been so gloriously received by you as the "Nation's guest".
Accept, Sir, with the above testimony of my sentiments for your country and for my venerable friend and sincere assurance of my profound respect.
ARY SCHEFFER" (Fairman 85)

The portrait was hung in the new House Chamber when it was completed in 1857. The portrait depicts Lafayette as a younger man than he was in 1824, and significantly in the guise of a statesman and not a general. He stands facing the West, his hat doffed in a respectful gesture to the county across the ocean, whose independence he helped to secure. The painting conveys a sense of strength in his robust figure, yet his civilized attire and pose emphasize the qualities of a gentleman.

In February of 1832 a portrait of Washington was commissioned as a companion piece to Scheffer's generous gift. John Vanderlyn was given a total of $2,500 to execute the painting, with the specific instructions that the subject's head be "a copy of Stuart's Washington" (Fairman 65). The fact that the artist was directed to reproduce what is today the de facto official likeness of Washington's face indicates the awareness, just over thirty years after his death, of the need to solidify a single specific image of the Founding Father in the minds of citizens and legislators. In spite of the influence of the one dollar bill, this appears to be an early example of the conscious attempt to construct iconic images of heroic Americans.

Despite the fact that all other elements of the painting were "to be left to the judgement of the artist" (Fairman 65), Washington is in a typically conservative pose. With a hand resting lightly upon a set of documents, red drapery suspended in the background, Vanderlyn incorporates most of the stock accoutrements of an official state portrait (Quick 11). The cushion of the chair is faintly embroidered with the seal of the United States. Out the window is a pastoral landscape, at the right side of which part of a triumphal arch may be discerned.

A second full-length portrait of Washington is located in the House reception room. This is one of the many copies Gilbert Stuart made of his 1796 "Lansdowne" painting. The original was commissioned by the wife of Pennsylvania Senator William Bingham and given to the Marquis of Lansdowne. An ardent supporter of the Revolutionary while he was Earl of Shelburne, Lansdowne's would have been one of the few prominent houses to display images of American patriots in Britain after the Revolution. It was therefore critical that the painting convey a very deep impression of dignity and power in its subject (Quick 22).

The rich crimson drapery, the rug, the column in the upper left background, all lend the sense of dignity; they also function as traditional elements of grand manner portraiture that most Europeans would be familiar with. The books and documents are similarly traditional accessories as would befit a statesman; the small sword in Washington's left hand recalls the military leader and the chief executive. A clever emphasis of the powers of state can also be found in the ornately carved table leg: the drapery has been lifted to reveal a fasces topped with the heads of eagles.

In a slight contrast to Vanderlyn's full-length Washington, this subject does not lean upon the table for support. He instead stands firmly upright, while extending his right arm in a solemn gesture. A telling similarity between the two works is revealed in the face, as Stuart copied his own original likeness of Washington for use in this portrait as well. Stuart was in the habit of making rapid copies of his original Washington to support himself (Lee 19), and so his insertion of the image here may seem a trifle mechanical. However, given the destination of the painting and the attention paid to the subject's surroundings, it may be equally plausible that artist was as aware as the Congressmen in 1832 of the value such an iconic representative could be for the Nation. Regardless of the underwhelming originality found in either the pose or expression, they seem appropriate "for a man whom the British were now meant to recognize as a statesman, just as they formerly had been compelled to accept him as a general (Quick 23).

Not surprisingly, the Lansdowne painting which hangs in the House Reception Room used to be located in the U.S. Embassy in Spain. In light of the previous discussion, its function there seems obvious enough. it was recalled to the Capitol in 1951, and in its current location it once again serves to inspire and intimidate guests of the United States Government.

The three remaining works of note in the House wing feature Charles Carroll of Carrolton, Gunning Bedford, Jr., and Henry Clay. These paintings hung in the representatives' Old Hall in the period between its abandonment for the larger chamber and its dedication as the National Statuary Hall. They were then moved en masse to their current location, which faces the east stairway of the House wing. The portrait of Charles Carroll of Carrolton, last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was once offered to the Joint Committee on the Library as a Thomas Sully painting. The offer was refused, but was accepted at a later date when offered as the work of Chester Harding. The painting was purchased at that time, but its artist was not proven to be Harding until it was compared with an Asher B. Durand engraving known to be a copy of the Harding portrait (Fairman 269).

Like some of the lesser known individuals in the main corridor of the Senate Wing, the portrait of Gunning Bedford, Jr. was a gift. It was bequeathed by Henrietta Bedford upon her death in 1871; fortunately the instructions left in her will lend us a clue to the historical relevance of Mr. Bedford:

"It is my will that my executor have the portrait of my father (one of the framers of the Constitution of the United States and a room-mate of James Madison as Princeton College) placed in the Capitol at Washington City near that of Madison as one of the framers of the Constitution. . ." (Fairman 251)

While there are no paintings of James Madison anywhere in the Capitol, the portrait of his worthy roommate holds a sufficiently honorable position by its close proximity to John Neagle's magnificent painting of Henry Clay. The sketches for this nine foot tall "Father of the American System" was begun in 1842, after Clay had retired yet again from public life. Momentum began building for the third of his five races for the presidency over the next year, while the portrait itself was being done (Quick 142); its suitability as a campaign poster is thus not surprising. Just in front of a heroic column, a voluminous American flag drapes its folds about a globe showing the continent of South America. Clay was one of the first and most aggressive supporters of Latin American independence from Spain, and his outstretched hands suggest the benevolent metahpor of partnership between the two continents of the New World.

The gesture to foreign policy on the right is balanced by Clay's leftward gaze over the various symbols of domestic improvement. The anvil and plow symbolize the two primary elements of national production, industry and agriculture. The ox may further enhance the agrarian ideal, but the use of ox as a beast of burden adds the dimension of transportation. As the country grew inland, the need for a system of highways and canals became increasingly more necessary; this transportation network was a cornerstone of Clay's American System.


All of the portraits discussed here have, by virtue of their display inside the United States Capitol, assumed a mantle of national responsibility. They are not charged with conveying the turgid grandeur of defining American acheivements, as are the publicly-accessible Rotunda paintings; but in the national memory great moments are necessarily conceived by great men, and so the portraits must nevertheless reflect ideals which are complimentary to those larger patriotic scenes. Since the portraits are of multifaceted and even contradictory human beings, the images chosen for display must emphasize just the right personal qualities to their audience-- which happens to be the men and women of the contemporary Congress. The presentation of honorable attributes in their various incarnations as American statesmen thus becomes a direct attempt to associate both the figures and their values with the general theme of patriotic service. As we have seen, their placement in areas occupied by certain individuals is a further attempt to impart that theme upon the viewer. Their individual and composite symbolic nature is such that they all contribute to the American Image, encapsulated in one giant architectural icon by the Capitol itself.


WORKS CITED

Art in the United States Capitol. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976.

Alexander, Holmes. The Famous Five. New York: The Bookmailer, 1958.

Fairman, Charles E. Art and Artists of the Capitol of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1927.

Lee, Cuthbert. Early American Portrait Painters. New Haven: Yale UP, 1929.

Peterson, Merrill D. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Simon, Robin. The Portrait in Britain and America. Oxford: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1987.

Sumner, Charles. "Art in the National Capitol." Charles Sumner: His Complete Works. vol. 14. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Quick, Michael. "Princely Images in the Wilderness: 1720-1775." American Portraiture in the Grand Manner: 1720-1920. ed. Jeanne D'Andrea & Phil Freshman. Los Angeles: L.A. County Museum of Art, 1981.

Wechter, Dixon. The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero-Worship. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941.

WORKS NOT CITED

Neal, Steve. McNary of Oregon: A Political Biography. Portland, OR: Press of the Oregon Historical Society, 1985.

Parker, William B. The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1924.

Sage, Leland L. William Boyd Allison. Iowa City, IO: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1956.

The Reader's Guide to American History, ed. Eric Fohner & John A. Garraty. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

The Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Allen Johnson et. al. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927-1944.


by Dan Backer
dhb7u@virginia.edu
April 1996


American Studies @UVA