Created in 1857, the fresco Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities has had an eventful life of its own. During its first century and a half, it has been praised, ridiculed, installed, disassembled and reinstalled. It was painted by Constantino Brumidi, and was originally located in the House Chamber. Brumidi’s frescos (paintings made on wet plaster) are now considered distinguishing features of the Capitol Building, but the Italian-born artist and this work in particular were not always so well received.
Brumidi immigrated to the U.S. in 1852. He began work on the Capitol in 1855, continuing until his death in 1880. The artist became a U.S. citizen on November 12, 1857, just weeks before the completion of the Cornwallis fresco. Although he rarely signed his works within the Capitol, the artist declared his new citizenship status on the strap of the bag in the lower right corner of the painting, which he signed as “C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S.”
The Politics of Art
During the 1850s, the political climate in the United States took an anti-immigrant turn, led by the increasingly popular Nativist American or Know-Nothing party.
This unusual signature may be simply an expression of the artist’s pride in his new citizenship. However, considering anti-immigrant feelings in the U.S. at the time, Brumidi’s signature may have held a deeper meaning.
This simmering political climate was set to a boil by American artists who were disappointed that an Italian artist held a monopoly on adorning the walls of the Capitol. Others disapproved of the colorful, lavish style of Brumidi’s frescos, deeming it inappropriate for a building with as serious a function as the U.S. Capitol. Harper’s Weekly reported: “Some critics have caviled at the profuse and gaudy decorations of the new Hall… The general effect… is dazzling and meretricious; one is reminded of a fashionable saloon in a gay capital, rather than the place of meeting of national legislators.”
A New Home
The fresco remained within the House chamber, but objections to it did not cease with the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s. During the 1947 renovation of the House chamber, a wood panel wall was built to cover the Brumidi fresco. In 1972, funds were appropriated for the delicate task of removing the fresco and relocating it to a more hospitable space.
The removal project was conducted by Henry G. Courtais, a French-born muralist, then working in New York. The goal was to carefully separate the one-inch layer of century-old plaster upon which the fresco was painted from the brick wall behind it, risking as little damage as possible.
Once successfully detached and reinforced, the plaster slab was lowered by crane one floor outside the building, down the steps of the Capitol, and re-installed in the Members’ Dining Room, where it can be seen today. This new location was chosen at the request of several Congressmen, who felt that the fresco deserved more exposure. It is now a much-admired feature of the Members’ Dining room, contributing to the distinction and historical meaning of the restaurant.