Art and Artifacts
The 1857 architectural plans did not include a clear vision for new works of art in the Chamber. Although the George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette portraits came along when the Representatives moved in from the previous meeting space, the rest of the walls were left in flux.
Constantino Brumidi's Fresco
With several wall panels unoccupied, Montgomery Meigs—supervising engineer of the construction project and de facto decision maker on all things art related—brought Constantino Brumidi over from work on the Senate wing of the Capitol at the last minute to paint a fresco in one of the blank spaces. The Italian-born fresco painter had been retained to decorate the Capitol’s north wing corridors and Rotunda ceiling. The corridors of the Senate were executed in a style inspired by the ancient Roman frescoes of Pompeii, combining classical and allegorical subjects with portraits and scenes from American history. The one wall panel Brumidi painted in the House Chamber—the only new artwork expressly completed for its 1857 opening—was a departure from this style.
To complement the George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette portraits, the artist settled on a Revolutionary War subject. Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities Under the Flag of Truce, a large-scale fresco, illustrates George Washington in a tent at the Yorktown battlefield, accepting a letter from British General Cornwallis’s emissary. Washington’s decision to grant a two-hour truce, rather than the 24-hour truce proposed, was an important turning point in the war with the British. By rejecting the long truce, hostilities were resumed before the British naval fleet arrived to back up Cornwallis’s unit. He surrendered a few days later, and the War for Independence was over.
Although original to the space, the painting was never popular. Complaints ranged from assertions that the subject was inappropriate for the legislative Chamber, to quibbles about the style or national origin of the painter. It was painstakingly removed from the Chamber in 1972, and lowered by crane outside the building for installation in the Member’s Dining Room on the first floor of the Capitol.
Albert Bierstadt's Landscapes
Unlike the supervising engineer, American artists took a keen interest in what paintings would complement the Chamber’s décor. The House, though, showed reluctance about acquiring art. After the bulk of the Capitol’s decoration was completed by an Italian artist, working in what some considered an unsuitably European style, artists and Members alike became increasingly vocal about the importance of the legislative branch patronizing American artists, working in styles popular in America. In the 19th century, this meant landscapes.
Albert Bierstadt, a German-born, American-raised painter known for his large-scale, highly detailed landscapes of the American West—was the one to finally convince the House to acquire new pieces for the Chamber. He began his campaign for a commission in 1866, and the following year, Representative Nathaniel Banks successfully sponsored a resolution directing the artist to produce two works “thoroughly American in character, representing some prominent feature of scenery or important event in the discovery of America.”
Although Congress supported the theory of showcasing American art by American artists, deciding on funds to pay for such paintings was another matter. The resolution did not include an appropriation of money to complete the works. Several years of fruitless lobbying passed. In 1874, though, the artist decided on more drastic measures. Bierstadt arranged to temporarily exhibit two paintings in the House Chamber, even working on one of the canvases while Congress was in session. On March 3, 1875, the stunt paid off, and the House finally agreed to pay him for one of the paintings, Discovery of the Hudson River. This work combined the artist’s signature—large-scale landscape with specific local detail—with a historic moment, in this case, Henry Hudson’s exploration of the New York waterway that later bore his name.
Not one to be deterred, Bierstadt persisted in fulfilling the original resolution for two works. Additional lobbying—of many individuals, up to and including President Rutherford B. Hayes, a fan of the artist’s work—helped him secure a second commission. Entrance into Monterey was finally purchased in July 20, 1878. The second work represents the opposite side of the country, depicting a serene sunrise over the Monterey Bay in California, with a foreground showing the nascent Spanish settlement of the region, including a grazing herd of cattle and a religious ceremony unfolding beneath a tree.
Both landscapes remained in the Chamber until 1901. After occupying several locations around the Capitol, they are currently on view in the grand stairwell on the East Front of the Capitol.