MAYBE YOU thought the place was all history and politics, and if that's it for you, go stand in line. But if you like your history lesson illustrated, visit the U.S. Capitol on a different mission. Walk through the main entrance, whose massive, 17-foot-high front doors detail Columbus's achievements, and keep your eyes open.
What you'll soon find, beyond the power brokering and policy-making, is art. It's everywhere in the Capitol: in passageways, on the ceilings, along staircases, under your feet, over doorways, resting on pedestals, hanging on walls. In all, there are more than 800 works in the Capitol's collection, "if you count everything, even the gilded 19th-century frames," says Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Capitol's Office of the Architect.
The art takes every form, from frescos, to ornamental bronze stair railings, to grand paintings, to stained glass windows. The theme of each piece is almost always connected with a person, people or event that helped shape our country's history. In that respect, the collection serves as a fascinating visual record that brings the past alive. But the works stand on their own, too, offering splendid examples of American artistry.
Take a guided tour and see some of the art, then start wandering and see more of it. As long as there are no signs barring your way, or no U.S. Capitol police officers courteously but firmly directing you elsewhere, you're free to roam. (Certain parts of the Senate and House wings are off limits when members are in session.) Some highlights of the collection both on and off the beaten track include:
Go ahead, look up -- everyone else does. You are gazing at a spectacular fresco painted 180 feet high in the eye of the Rotunda. Constantino Brumidi, known as the "Michaelangelo of the Capitol," painted this fresco over the course of 11 months in 1865. Entitled "The Apotheosis of George Washington," it is considered Brumidi's piece de resistance of the hundreds of works he created for the Capitol. This allegorical painting shows an inner swirl of figures, among whom Washington presides, flanked by Liberty and Victory. The circle of 14 cavorting females represents the original states and the Union. An outer ring of figures symbolizes the arts and sciences, the sea, commerce, mechanics and agriculture. Though they don't seem so from the ground, some of the forms are as much as 15 feet tall.
Look closely at the woman poised directly below Washington -- the triumphant Armed Freedom is said to be the model of a young and beautiful actress, Lola Germon, with whom Brumidi, then in his sixties, had a child (if not a marriage).
"Brumidi was an interesting fellow," says Wolanin, who is writing a book on the artist. So far, she says, her research has not yet turned up a marriage license for Lola and Constantino, "although certainly Lola was known as his wife," she says. And "Armed Freedom does look like portraits of Lola."
Below the canopy is Brumidi's frieze that, according to one Capitol tour guide, "covers 400 years of history in 300 feet of wall." Brumidi began this work in 1877, when he was 72, and the frieze proved to be the death of him. While painting the panel entitled "Penn's Treaty With the Indians," the eighth of his 16 designs chronicling early American history, Brumidi lost his balance and dangled from the scaffolding 58 feet above the floor for 15 minutes before help arrived. He never recovered from the shock and died five months later.
Closer to eye level on the walls of the Rotunda hang eight immense oil paintings. Four of the paintings reveal scenes from the days of the pilgrims and colonies. Among these is one called, "Embarkation of the Pilgrims," in which a prayerful group is shown about to depart from Holland for the New World. Wolanin points out that the painting's artist, Robert Weir, "was the art instructor for many years at West Point, where he instructed Whistler, among others."
More valuable are the four paintings on the opposite wall, according to the tour guide,, because "they are considered historically accurate." The painter was John Trumbull, "a member of Washington's army, who got eyewitness accounts of the events he painted," and sketched likenesses of his subjects while they were still alive. Scholars thus consider more true-to-life his depictions of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence, the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga and of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and George Washington's resigning his commission, according to the guide.
Finally, the Rotunda displays statues. "One of my favorite statues is Vinnie Ream's re-creation of Lincoln in the Rotunda," says Wolanin.
Ream was only 19 when Congress granted her the $10,000 contract to create this compelling, life-sized statue of Lincoln, and just 23 when she completed it. Impressed by her youth and the fact that she was poor, Lincoln allowed her to sketch him in half-hour sessions during what turned out to be the last five months of his life. The result is a solemn rendering of the president, who appears deep in thought, his eyes cast downward.
An act of Congress in 1864 invited each state to present to the Capitol two statues commemorating noteworthy men or women from the state. Statuary Hall, just off the Rotunda on the House side of the Capitol, is the repository for some 40 of the sculptures; the Hall of Columns, one floor below, houses another 20. The remaining 35 "statues of the states" are scattered throughout the building. ("Five states still have a statue to contribute," my guide explains.)
The bronze and marble sculptures, each on a pedestal, are a diverse bunch. In Statuary Hall proper, you'll find the likes of Vermont's Ethan Allen, Revolutionary War soldier and author; Illinois educator Frances Willard (one of six women in the collection); King Kamehameha I, a beloved leader of the Hawaiian islands from 1782 to 1819; and two statues executed by Vinnie Ream, one of lawyer/politician Samuel Jordan Kirkwood of Iowa, and another of Cherokee leader Sequoya of Oklahoma.
Father Damien, who left Belgium for Hawaii, presents his imposing self in the Hall of Columns. The missionary was honored for his work with a leper colony on the island of Molokai, where he, also succumbed to the disease -- you can see it in the ravaged face of the statue.
Unfortunately, most of the statues are identified only by state and name, so to obtain their individual stories you'll have to ask a guide. (Father Damien is one exception; a plaque on the side of the pedestal offers a little background.) The U.S. Capitol Historical Society is planning an update to the brochure, now out of print, that was once available at the Capitol and provided information on its statues.
The sculptures themselves are interesting, though, and their poses and props sometimes hint at their claims to fame. For example, Western artist Charles Marion Russell from Montana is depicted in cowboy boots with palette in hand.
"You could literally spend hours looking at these murals of Brumidi," says Wolanin. Before he tackled the Rotunda, Brumidi designed the paintings that cover the corridors, vaulted ceilings and lunettes (those crescent-shaped spaces above the doorways) on the first floor of the Senate wing. With a team of decorative painters, Brumidi laid out in colorful and intricate detail "40 different kinds of birds, as well as flowers, squirrels, fruits, snakes, all sorts of things," says Wolanin.
Over the doors of committee rooms, Brumidi painted frescoed lunettes with subjects relating to the committees' functions -- although rooms have changed over the century and nowadays there is often no connection between the fresco and the office below. (Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat, once presided fittingly over the Patent Committee Office. Now it's a Foreign Relations Committee room.)
Other decorations you'll find along these corridors include profile portraits of famous Americans, medallion portraits of Revolutionary War leaders, and several works added in more recent years by modern artists, such as "First Landing on the Moon, 1969," by Allyn Cox, the same artist who completed Brumidi's frieze in the Rotunda, and Charles Schmidt's memorial portrait of the space shuttle Challenger crew. Even the floors are beautiful along these corridors: ornately patterned and colored Minton tiles that complement the tones of the murals.
SENATE RECEPTION ROOM
More of those red, blue and cream glazed Minton tiles form the floor of the ornate second-floor Senate chamber where members meet constituents. The walls and rounded ceiling are gilded grace notes of plaster work interspersed with more Brumidi murals. Intricate gold flourishes frame five oval-shaped portraits on the walls.
You may notice that a couple of these medallions portrait people of people who came after Brumidi, such as Robert A. Taft. Wolanin explains, "There were blank spaces where Brumidi had planned things, but Congress had stopped funding." In 1957, a special Senate committee chose five distinguished members of the past, whose portraits would fill Brumidi's empty spaces.
"BATTLE OF LAKE ERIE"
"If you look at the faces of the people in this painting, they're all the same -- they say the artist just painted his own face over and over," confided a security aide to me as I stood looking at this huge, 20-by-30-foot painting in the east staircase of the Senate wing. I have to say that I saw what he meant, although Wolanin believes the similarities of features may be attributed to artist William Powell's "particular painting style." In any case, Powell created this scene in 1873 to depict a dramatic moment during the War of 1812 when 28-year-old Oliver Hazard Perry transferred the colors of his beat-up flagship to one in better shape. This is the same Perry who in victory proclaimed, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
"RECALL OF COLUMBUS"
You'd never guess by looking at his face in this picture that Christopher Columbus has just received some good news. The clue is the fact that he's doffing his hat. On a road between Santa Fe and Grenada in Spain in 1492, Columbus sits upon his horse and reads the news, just then delivered by a royal messenger, that Ferdinand and Isabella will finance his voyage to find a new route to India. In fact, Queen Isabella has pledge to sell her jewels if necessary, to pay for the expedition.
The painting is intriguing in its details: Columbus's benign composure, the messenger's deference to him, and the curiosity of an old man and child watching from the side of the road. Augustus Heaton painted the scene in 1882, and it now hangs on the landing of the Senate's third floor, across from "Battle of Lake Erie." Some words of explanation below the work tell you that Heaton "based the picture on Washington Irving's popular book, 'Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus' . . . and confirmed visual details by visiting the Columbus site in Spain and by making a careful study of period costume."
THE COX CORRIDORS
Back in 1857, House members had voted to keep their wing's walls deliberately unadorned, but their successors reconsidered the idea in 1970, when the U.S. Capitol Historical Society offered to fund a muraling project by Allyn Cox. While the House corridors are still generally plainer than those in the Senate, wrapped into the curving ceilings of three first-floor corridors are Cox's colorful drawings of historical scenes, accompanied by slice-of-life images. For instance, on either side of a painting depicting the First Continental Congress of 1774 are pictures of a British soldier barring the way of a woman and child, and of a man who appears to be paying a bill (or maybe his taxes).
Cox died in 1982, but artists who have finished Cox's work have been as careful to present historically and geographically accurate pictures. Study the scene entitled "Golden Spike," which commemorates the moment in 1869 when the last rail was laid to connect East Coast and West Coast train service.
"The Chinese laborers you see were not in the famous original photo taken of this scene," says Wolanin. But the artist put them in the painting, she says, "after doing research and discovering that the laborers had been there, but didn't want their pictures taken, because, according to the mural artist, they were afraid of the camera."
"Entrance Into Monterey, 1770" is a glorious oil painting by Albert Bierstadt, one of the country's best-known 19th-century landscape painters. A sign on the House wing's private stairway landing over which this work appears warns off all but "Members Only" -- but you can still get a pretty good view standing on the steps. In contrast to the other paintings in the Capitol collection, this one's focus is on the idyllic setting rather than on close-up, realistic depiction of patriotic scenes or people. The scene is dominated by a great oak tree; in the shade beneath it, with the harbor and ships in the background, a priest stands before an altar, saying mass for the group of men gathered there kneeling.
Emanuel Leutze may be most famous for his "Washington Crossing the Delaware," but "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," his 20-by-30-foot fresco in the west stairway of the House wing, has many admirers, too. In this picture, a veritable cavalcade of men, women, children, horses and covered wagons clamber across rocky terrain toward that bright horizon of sun setting to the west. Leutze was a colorful character who enjoyed joking with President Lincoln and plying his painting subjects (and himself) with fine champagne and cigars while he worked. Critics poke fun at the melodrama present in this and other Leutze paintings, but the public tends to like them.
This is just a smattering of the artworks awaiting you in the Capitol. Be sure to seek out the Bierstadt, even though it can be hard to see when its spotlights are turned off (they're on when Congress is in session).
THE CAPITOL is open to the public from 9 to 4:30 daily, with extended hours in the summer. Free guided tours originate in the Rotunda, the domed section at the heart of the Capitol, to which the main visitors' entrance on the second floor leads. The tours run at least every 15 minutes, and as often as every two minutes in high tourist season (April is the busiest month, guides say; during the busiest times, you may have to wait as long as ??????? in a line that trails out the doors and down the steps of the Capitol).
The tours, which are wheelchair accessible, generally last 45 minutes and always include the Rotunda, Statuary Hall and ???????. . If the Senate is not in session, your guide will usually include the Brumidi corridors. Guides provide basic information about the Capitol's art works, but they know a lot more; ask questions. The closest Metro stations are Capitol South and Union Station.
THE U.S. CAPITOL HISTORICAL SOCIETY offers occasional special tours of the Capitol and its art works. (Next is a garden tour May 6 around the Capitol grounds, Bartholdi Fountain and U.S. Botanic Garden; the cost is $25.) Call Joanne Hanson at 202/543-8919.
TWO INVALUABLE BOOKS for those interested in the Capitol's art collection, both available in the Capitol gift shop, are "U.S. Art in the Capitol" ($35) and the paperback illustrated guide "We the People" ($5.95).
Elise Ford last wrote for Weekend about places you can rent for parties.