Constantino Brumidi (Italian/American, 1805-1880) Study for The Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol Building. Unsigned. Oil on canvas, dia. 35 1/4 in., in a molded giltwood frame. Condition: Relined, restretched, scattered retouch. .
Provenance: Purchased at auction in 1919 for $300.
Literature: Barbara Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol, (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1998).
Note: In the late summer of 1852, artist Constantino Brumidi arrived in New York City from Italy, an expatriate artist of great skill and experience. Many of his fresco series in the classical style adorned public buildings, baroque-era residences, and churches throughout Rome, though it was to be his works in America that would define his career. Born in 1805, Brumidi began studying art at a young age, and continued his education under such 19th century luminaries (and classically trained artists) as Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorwaldsen. As early as 1840, scholar Barbara Wolanin tells us, Brumidi was doing public work at the Vatican, restoring 16th century frescoes in the Vatican's Third Loggia. Throughout the 1840s, Brumidi worked steadily, building his resume and receiving acclaim.
Political winds in Italy shifted in the late 1840s, and a series of unfortunate events landed Brumidi in jail as a revolutionary. After some legal maneuverings, his sentence was commuted in March of 1852, and he left for the United States as a refugee half a year later, arriving in New York. There he worked regularly for two years, as his reputation grew. Late December of 1854 was the turning point in his career, Wolanin says, when he met Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, who was overseeing the ongoing construction and decoration at the United States Capitol building, in Washington, D.C. (Wolanin, p. 49). The Captain, knowing Brumidi's talents, gave the artist an opportunity: to paint a fresco in what was to become the Agriculture Committee's room, as a trial. Brumidi's work on that fresco was a great success by all accounts, and as a result Meigs and the design group at the Capitol employed him steadily thereafter. Over the next quarter century, Brumidi would establish and cement his reputation as the "Artist of the Capitol." He painted frescoes for the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, decorated a group of hallways now called "the Brumidi Corridors," and designed and executed the decorative schemes for the Senate Library, the room used by the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, and the President's Room. But it is his work on the Capitol Building's focal point which has become his legacy.
Wolanin calls it Brumidi's "masterpiece" - the huge fresco inside the Capitol's magnificent new, rotunda. Helped by a letter of recommendation from Captain Meigs, Brumidi was officially hired in 1862 by Thomas Walter, the architect of the Capitol's extension and dome, and B.B. French, the Commissioner of Public Buildings. French, having realized that there existed "no artist in the United States, capable of executing a real fresco painting as it should be done… except Mr. Brumidi," admits, "I do not see how we can do otherwise than employ him." (quoted in Wolanin, p. 126).
Brumidi had multiple visions for the rotunda painting before the official commission, beginning in 1859, which he nevertheless always envisioned as an apotheosis of Washington. Apotheosis paintings are a subject as classical as any - and refer to the rising of a subject to the divine or to the ideal. Great artists that Brumidi surely studied deified subjects in their art - Ingres with Homer, Rubens with Henry IV and others, and Francois Le Moyne with Hercules at Versailles. Of course, there was no better American subject in 1859 for an Apotheosis than George Washington, hero of the Revolution, father of the country, and the first President of the United States.
The Capitol painting's circular geometry and its need to be viewed from 360 degrees presented some challenges in composition, however. Brumidi's first designs fell short of meeting those criteria, and he wasn't satisfied until he came to an important realization. Wolanin calls it his "crucial conceptual transition from easel painting to monumental mural," which related more directly to the "soaring space" of the Rotunda. (Wolanin, p. 143) Instead of a work in the typical horizontal orientation, Brumidi envisioned concentric rings of figures, ensuring that "the viewer would look up into the space of the apotheosis." (Wolanin, p. 143) The final design was sketched in oil at least once sometime between 1859 and 1862, and that design is offered as the present lot.
Brumidi imbued his Apotheosis with symbolism throughout, including allegories for the thirteen original colonies, and representations of Commerce, Marine, Science, War, Agriculture, and Mechanics. In the Renaissance tradition he knew well, Wolanin says, Brumidi depicted "historic or allegorical figures with the features of the artist's notable contemporaries." (Wolanin, p. 129) Those representations include the Union shield-wielding personification of Freedom, vanquishing President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis as "Discord" and Alexander H. Stephen, Davis's Vice President, as "Anger," who is also being struck by a bolt of lightning. (Wolanin, p. 129) In the representation of "Science," Brumidi includes portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, who invented the steam engine, and Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.
Washington himself, the focus of the viewer's gaze, is at the center of a classical arrangement, flanked by two women - one representing Liberty, the other both Victory and Fame. He is dressed in his military uniform and seated on a cloud. Above him is the bright yellow-white of the heavens, to which he ascends, and which acts as a halo to frame him. Surrounding the Rotunda's apex with him are the thirteen female figures representing the original colonies, holding the banner with the familiar Latin phrase "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One).
Contemporary reactions to the final product in 1865 were overwhelmingly positive, and it was understood then, as now, that the Apotheosis of Washington in the Capital Rotunda is arguably the most important fresco painted in America. It is now seen by millions of visitors to the building each year, and stands as a testament to mid-19th century patriotism at a time of national crisis. It also serves as high reverence for a military and political leader of the highest esteem, instrumental to the beginnings of the United States of America, which Brumidi reportedly called "the one country on earth in which there is liberty." (Wolanin, p. 9)
Numerous small professionally executed scattered small spots of retouch to figures and background, with a few larger (the largest 7 x 3/4 in.) areas of inpainting mostly to background clouds.