Art and Artifacts
When the nation was young, the United States sought to associate itself with past glories of self-government, while also forging a path of its own. Historic objects in the Chamber symbolically refer to this idea. The House mace and inkstand draw on imagery from Republican Rome and British Parliament, but these silver objects also have uniquely American visual components. The presence of both the mace and inkstand during legislative sessions over the years adds to their importance. They represent the House’s institutional continuity within an ever-changing representative government.
The Mace and Inkstand
The House’s mace, which was introduced on December 29, 1841, adheres to the basic design of the weapon it shares its name with—a long shaft with a heavy, round implement on top. Maces used by the British and Australian Parliaments are topped by an arched crown, with an orb and cross. The House mace, however, layers specifically American imagery onto this basic form. The shaft is made up of 13 ebony rods, which represent the original states in the Union. The rods are bound together with intertwining silver bands, recalling ancient Roman fasces. A cast-silver globe with an eagle perched on it top off the decorative weapon. The continents are etched into the globe, with North America facing front.
Before the Speaker calls each session of the House to order, the coin-silver inkstand is placed on the rostrum. The inkstand is considered the oldest surviving relic of the Chamber, dating from between 1810 and 1820. Although the exact time of its acquisition is unknown, it most likely came into the House around 1819, when the old Chamber (now Statuary Hall) was first in use.
The inkstand’s earliest known documentation is an 1821 portrait of Speaker Henry Clay by artist Charles Bird King, where it is pictured on a table at Clay’s side. The inkstand is stamped with the mark of J. Leonard, a Georgetown silversmith and watchmaker. At the time, the inkstand was more than the symbol of government that it is today. It was a practical utensil, holding three crystal bottles of ink for the busy Speaker. These are contained in a silver tray, adorned on both sides with swags and medallions with eagles. The feet of the tray take the form of fasces, a symbol of unity and authority, with snakes, a symbol of wisdom, winding around them.
Although other paintings came and went during the first century of the House Chamber, only the heroes of the Revolutionary War returned after it reopened in 1951. The Marquis de Lafayette portrait arrived in the Old Hall of the House in 1824. George Washington's portrait arrived ten years later. When the House moved to the new Chamber, the portraits were hung as they were, Lafayette to the Speaker's left, and Washington to the right. The 1950 renovation included frames built into the new wood paneling, making the them permanent Chamber fixtures physically as well as symbolically.
The portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette was presented to the House by French artist Ary Scheffer in 1824. Lafayette, a French aristocrat, made important contributions to America’s success in the Revolutionary War, particularly his diplomatic work in securing French aid for the struggling American forces and in his role as a strategist for the Yorktown campaign.
The portrait came to the House to commemorate Lafayette’s triumphal tour of the United States. During this visit, Lafayette became the first foreign dignitary to address a Joint Session of Congress. Reportedly Lafayette’s favorite likeness, this portrait was reproduced in prints and on souvenirs and even currency during his visit. The Scheffer portrait places him outdoors within a landscape, wearing informal contemporary clothing, emphasizing his qualities as a man of philosophy rather than wealth or position.
The portrait of George Washington was commissioned in 1834 from John Vanderlyn—a leading American portrait artist in the first half of the 19th century—expressly to hang opposite Ary Scheffer’s Marquis de Lafayette in the House Chamber. As was common practice at the time, Vanderlyn modeled this painting after Gilbert Stuart’s authoritative life portrait of the first President, the Munro–Lenox Washington.
In addition to showing a reliable likeness, this composition depicts Washington as a statesman in an elegant, dramatic manner. Washington’s sword is sheathed at his side, indicating both his retirement from military leadership and the hope of peaceful times ahead for the nation. His hand rests on a sheaf of documents, further denoting his role in government. The legs of the table on which Washington’s hand rests are in the form of fasces, a symbol of authority and unity that appears in works of art throughout the Capitol.