The Capitol Dome

2018 Dome 55.1

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33 THE CAPITOL DOME fourth. But let us paint history. Behold! Open to your eyes, unrolled to your perception the pictures will steal upon your mind impercepti- bly without an effort without fatigue. 3 Just as Leutze argued, those artists that did succeed in achieving a commission for the four vacant Rotunda panels have had an outsized influence on how citizens of the United States understand and imagine their history, as the paintings were not only displayed in the Rotunda, but were mass reproduced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in objects as diverse as fine art prints, history text books, sheet music, postage stamps, world's fair guides, and currency. Indeed, as early as 1855 in an article in The Crayon, the nation's leading art periodical, one author opined of the Capitol paintings, "To describe and criticize these pictures with minuteness is not my intention, and would be a waste of time; for by the art of the engraver, they have been made as familiar to the American people as a thrice-told tale." 4 In our twenty-first-century moment, when much of the country is examining its troubling and conten- tious shared artistic past, these pivotal yet under- studied decades of antebellum American art history decidedly merit sustained examination and analysis. A current (2018) and ongoing exhibition project at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), entitled Creando Historia/Making History in the Americas, examines history painting at the three old- est art academies in the Americas—founded in Mexico City (1781), Philadelphia (1805), and Rio de Janeiro (1816)—as expressions of comparative hemispheric nationalist ideologies during the long nineteenth cen- tury. By focusing in particular on the academic history paintings that were produced by artists working at these schools, the exhibition project asks: what roles did these institutions play in defining national histories and iden- tities? How did art academies in Mexico, the United States, and Brazil shape education programs aimed at producing modern citizens? To what extent did national politics determine the functions of art academies? What types of visual idioms were deployed by art academies to shape national consciousness? How were the interna- tional conventions of academic history paintings used in these three countries to explicate their complex and individual projects of nation building and expansion within the transnational discourse of modern painting? In part, the exhibition project argues that history paint- ings from the nineteenth century form the visual back- drop of conceptions of citizenship and history across all of the Americas. In a time when scholars are increasingly examining the ideals and legends of America's "founding," these paintings illustrate a period in this hemisphere's history when Americans—North and South—were struggling to define the political, social, and geographic borders of their nationhood. 5 Visual artists were often at the van- guard of this definition, and the grand canvasses they left their countrymen represent the most iconic and last- ing examples of this phenomenon. Now is the time to demand that art historians investigate these narratives in the context of the diverse realities of the artists and audiences involved in their conceptions. While the larger, ongoing exhibition focuses on history painting in the Americas' first three art academies, this article will focus on how U.S. artists including Rothermel and his contemporaries, national patrons of the arts, archi- tects, and Members of Congress battled to decorate the Rotunda, the new nation's most prominent "art gal- lery," with their own competing visions of what Ameri- can history was the most suitable to be enshrined in the Fig. 3. This star, inset in the floor of the Crypt one floor below the Rotunda, marks the center of the original District of Columbia.

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