When Constantino Brumidi first arrived at the United States Capitol in the winter of 1854-1855, he promptly made this sketch. The sketch was essentially his job application to paint the Capitol’s frescos. Brumidi outlined what would ultimately become his masterpiece, the decoration of the entire Capitol interior. And this little painting is where it all began.
Montgomery Meigs was a cynical interviewer when Brumidi, a refugee from political turmoil in Italy, came looking for work. Meigs led the construction of the Capitol’s huge new wings and dome, and he wanted to decorate in a style that was nothing like America’s existing public buildings. Despite what budget hawks in Congress thought, those plain structures, he said, “starve in simple whitewash.” Meigs' ambitions outstripped the abilities of local artists, so he was skeptical and then pleased when he met “the lively old man with a very red nose,” who turned out to be a gifted painter. Brumidi, in turn, was probably just as pleased when Meigs set him a design challenge to prove he was the best painter for the job: “Cincinnatus Called from the Plow,” George Washington’s favorite subject from history. Brumidi knew just how he would tell the ancient Roman tale of civic virtue. He had painted the very same subject back in Rome.
Before a month passed, the hopeful artist presented his sketched-out design, now in the House Collection. One look and Meigs was convinced. Cincinnatus got the full hero treatment. He stands at the center of the design and the center of the action, poised between his plow and the Roman Senate’s pleas for him to take the reins of power. Farming’s prominence made the composition even more appropriate for the spot Meigs had in mind, the east end of the Committee on Agriculture’s new barrel-vaulted hearing room.
The sketch was so successful that Meigs told Brumidi to start right away, in that very room, ultimately destined for the Agriculture Committee, “which had only a rough coat of brown plaster.” Meigs continued to use the room as an office, and invited lawmakers to watch the artist at work. It was a wise move. Skeptical statesmen dropped by almost every day. Meigs was “relieved from much anxiety by finding that our Legislators visited and admired the picture and were much interested in its progress.”
Brumidi worked hard and fast, completing the Cincinnatus fresco in just a month, through weather so cold the paint and plaster froze. His mettle proven, Meigs hired him to cover all four walls with frescoes, and the ceiling, too. By the time the painter got to the western end of the room, the design changed from the allegory of America’s bounty that Brumidi had sketched. It became a history painting to match Cincinnatus. The new plan mirrored the Roman story with a bit of Revolutionary War history—Israel Putnam called from his plow in 1775 to command the troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The paintings for Meigs’ office, which did become the Agriculture Committee’s room, were just the beginning for Brumidi. He continued painting the corridors, the ceremonial rooms, and most famously the Capitol’s Rotunda. The building today sparkles with more than 25 years’ worth of paintings wrought by Brumidi, all springing from this sketch, a small but very successful job application.
Sources: William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2001. Montgomery Meigs, Capitol Builder: The Shorthand Journals of Montgomery C. Meigs, 1853-1859, 1861. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2000. Barbara Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1998.Follow @USHouseHistory