United States Capitol is recognized around the world both as a symbol of
our country and for the momentous events that have taken place there.
However, the building’s interior is far less well known. Visitors are
often surprised by the Capitol's stunning architectural details and the
impressive art complementing the interior spaces. Now, those works of
art–ranging from portraits of prominent senators to depictions of
significant events in U.S. history–are accessible to everyone through
the publication of the United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art.
Prepared by the Office of Senate Curator, the catalogue represents the
first comprehensive effort to illustrate and interpret this rich
collection of paintings and sculpture.
The United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art highlights 160 works of
art, including 82 sculptures, 75 paintings, 2 enameled mosaics, and 1
stained glass window. Each work is illustrated with a color photograph
and accompanied by essays and secondary images that place the work in
historical and aesthetic context. These secondary images include other
works of art that inspired or served as a model for the work in the
Senate collection, as well as photographs that display the art in its
current location. There is also an introductory essay that analyzes the
art in the Senate and its place in American art history.
The catalogue is a result of a lengthy tradition of art in the Senate, a
tradition that primarily dates from the establishment of the Joint
Committee on the Library in 1802. In addition to maintaining the Library
of Congress, this committee was also responsible for supervising the
acquisition of art for the Capitol, the White House, and the public
squares of Washington, D.C. After the middle of the nineteenth century,
the joint committee became especially active in the selection of
sculpture and painting. When the Capitol was expanded by adding the new
dome and two new chambers for the legislature, a campaign was undertaken
to decorate the building to reflect the United States’s newfound
importance in world affairs.
Over the years, the Senate’s art collection has taken shape through
several means. Some pieces have been purchased and others specially
commissioned. Donors have also offered important works of historical
significance that have become welcomed additions to the collection.
A review of the catalogue illustrates the broad sweep of U.S. history
and the diversity of the Senate’s art collection. The 160 pieces in the
catalogue represent the work of 111 artists, including such celebrated
figures as Gilbert Stuart, Alexander Calder, Augustus Saint-Gaudens,
Thomas Sully, and Daniel Chester French. Many of the works feature
prominent senators, including portraits of Everett McKinley Dirksen,
Mike Mansfield , and Robert A. Taft, and small bronze sculptures of
Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Many of the subjects are immediately
recognizable; there are depictions of George Washington, Thomas
Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Franklin. Lesser-known
figures include the Native American chief Be sheekee and Senate employee
Isaac Bassett, who came to the Senate in 1831 as one of the first pages
and stayed until 1895, when he was an elderly doorkeeper. Although
portraits dominate the collection, the American landscape is represented
by an oil painting of Niagara Falls in winter. Major events are also
documented, such as the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation
by President Abraham Lincoln and the first manned moon landing. There
are two special collections: a series of paintings of major U.S. army
posts completed by Seth Eastman between 1870 and 1875, and a collection
of vice presidential busts.
In the catalogue’s introductory essay, art historian William Kloss
points to the Senate’s art collection as a “paradigm of public art in
the United States,” saying that the collection “was intended to serve a
grander purpose . . . to commit to posterity the persons and events of
our national history, centered upon the institution of the Senate and on
the founding of the Republic.” The United States Senate Catalogue of
Fine Art offers readers an opportunity to see how this purpose was met.
The catalogue is available online through the Government Printing Office
(GPO). It can be purchased from the Senate Gift Shop in the Dirksen
Senate Office Building or the GPO bookstore.