It is a perfectly normal, if somewhat vain, penchant of the big time art collector to catalog one's valued acquisitions in a glossy, full-color, annotated volume that can also be viewed if the art is good enough - as a real public service.
And that apparently is what motivated the 535 members of our Congress to commission for the Bicentennial the 453-page "Art in the United States Capitol" an authoritative compendium of their 186 paintings, 77 busts, 102 statues, 90 reliefs, 29 exterior works, 137 frescues, murals and lunettes - plus 57 more objects they categorize as miscellany.
There certainly may be grander collections than that of the legislators - though many of their objects are hardly to be dismissed lightly. And Congress leaves other collectors in the shade in at least one respect, by having its own publishing house, the Government Printing Office, which was ordered in 1970 to print "Art in the United States Capitol" as a replacement for an outdated earlier book that lacked color reproduction.
At that time, the legislators seemed to view the volume primarily as a freebie for their own use, with an order for 36,250 copies. Senators would get 10,300 representatives, 21,950 and to the architect of the Capitol, whose office prepared the book, would go 4,000. Once available for Capitol Hill they were then sent out as offerings to schools, libraries, nursing homes and other places where potential votes may lie.
At the same time, though, the GPO decided to print some copies the number is in disputed to sell for $12.55 at its bookstores, which is not a bad price if you don't have a friendly congressman who'll get you one free.
Heavy tomes with small type bound in dull, grainy gray or brown heavy paper being the GPO's sort of thing, it was a special challenge to produce a coffee-table art book (or one staff member put it "a quality volume"). But GPO found the book to be commercial success - if not on the scale of the office's very best seller. HEW's child-care book, which has gone into the millions . As a result "Art in the United States Capitol" is now going into a second printing of 10,000 copies, all for public sale.
The book handsomely records a collection of objects much of whose fascination is in their eclecticism and its occasional eccentricity. Also, the Capitol art unusual as a collection in that it concentrates on the monumental and the commemorative.
It should come as no surprise that by far the commonest objects are formal portaits. And it also should be no surprise that there are more than three times as many portaits of former Speakers (45) than of former Presidents, the most recent of them being Garfield, which may tell you something about congressional disillusionment with the gradual imperialization of the Presidency.
In all, the Capitol contains 132 commemorative portraits, another 77 commemorative busts and 102 commemorative statues. Some are fairly schlocky (surely they could have done better by Speaker John W. McCormack). But many outstanding: the three Gilbert Stuarts of George Peale full-length portraits of Jefferson and Jackson, and a striking recent portrait by Tom Lea of Speker Sam Rayburn.
The statuary collection, as well, has it share of curiosities (Hawaii's King Kamehamea I with his spear and bizarre garb, for example). on the other hand, there is the new and handsomely abstracted stature by Marisol Escobar of Hawaii's Father Damien, as well as the famous Will Rogers by Jo Davidson and a powerful bronze of the artist Carles Marion Russell by John B. Weaver.
The book provides outstanding color reproductions of the grand Constantino Brumidi murals that are all over the Capitol, as well as his-Apotheosis of Washington," which is the canopy of the dome.
But one feature of "Art in the United States Capitol" that time has already overtaken is the foreward, written by former Rep. Wayne L. Hays, whose committee cleared the resolution for the book and who resigned last year after disclosure of his role in a sex-payroll scandal. In Hays' days of glory his office walls were filled with splendid paintings of a non-commemorative nature. Needless to say, none are in this book.