A Capitol Subject
Artists Devote Careers to Famed Building
The Capitol is a structure that has drawn the artistic eye of painters and sketch makers since its original north and south wings began to take shape in the decade before the War of 1812. And in the mid-19th century, when photography began to emerge in American culture, the Capitol quickly became a favorite subject of the earliest professional photographers.
So today, after so many years of artistic study and restudy, one question remains: How many ways can you paint and photograph the same building?
For a group of artists who today make the Capitol a main focus of their work, the building will never be “done” as an artistic image. The structure’s continual narrative of changing meanings, along with the never-ending market for “Capitaliana,” as artist Peter Waddell calls it, will keep Capitol artists inspired and in business for a very long time.
“There’s a ready market out there for Capitol views,” Waddell said. “The Capitol has groupies, no doubt about it.”
These artists began their relationships with the seat of American democracy for various reasons, but all agree that the building is a subject that strikes a chord with the artists as well as the audience.
Suzy Maroon, the wife of the late Fred Maroon, who is widely regarded as the most famous modern-day photographer of the Capitol, said she can remember the exact day her husband became interested in shooting the Capitol. It was July 4, 1990.
“He and I were sitting on the Mall watching the fireworks,” Maroon said, “when he looked back at the Capitol and said, ‘Damn, that’s a beautiful building. Someone should do a book on that building … wait a minute, I’m a photographer. I’ll do it.’”
What followed was a three-year effort between husband and wife to gain permission to undertake the study, to research and photograph a thousand locations inside and outside the building, and to select165 pictures for the final product. When they finished, they had created one of the first comprehensive photo books of the Capitol.
Fred Maroon’s half-century of experience as a photographer and his background in architecture gave him a feel for spaces and texture that gave people a fresh and new perspective on the old building.
“Fred provided eyes for people to see the Capitol in ways they couldn’t see it themselves,” Maroon said. She said she was sometimes amused when Congressmen would stop and ask her husband where certain pictures were taken because they had never viewed the building as Maroon had shot it.
Frank Morgan, a lifelong Washingtonian who began painting views of the Capitol since the early 1990s, admits he was drawn to the building for a different reason than Maroon.
“I’ve been around here so long that I didn’t realize it, but all over the U.S. and the world it’s the dream of people to come see this building,” Morgan said. “After I started painting, it became clear that I needed to do views of the Capitol because it’s one of the most sellable images in town.”
Over time, the Capitol became a dominant image in Morgan’s work, and in 10 years, he’s done 10 views of the building, including two works selected to appear on the Congressional Holiday ornament in 1999 and 2001.
“The Capitol as a subject is only limited by the imagination of the artist. The artist makes an image that characterizes the building in a certain way, and then things change,” said Morgan, who finished his modern-day depiction of the Capitol for the 2001 holiday ornament just weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is an image that today is striking in the amount of public access it depicts and its lack of now-familiar Jersey barriers and security fences. “I characterized the People’s House as I saw it, and then that changed.”
Many of Morgan’s works are sold in the Senate Gift Shop, one of three gift shops located in the Capitol complex. To have one’s work sold in the Senate or House gift shops, or by the Capitol Historical Society gift shop, represents a unique opportunity for Capitol artists because it allows them to tap into the major market outside of D.C. tourists — Members of Congress and their staffs.
Indeed, Morgan attributes many of his sales to Congressmen and their families who want images of the Capitol for their own homes and to give as gifts when they travel abroad.
Ernie LePire, director of the Senate Gift Shop, chooses what will be offered in the 600-square-foot venue located in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. To a Capitol artist, having your work picked up by someone like LePire is the equivalent of hitting the “Capitaliana” big time.
LePire’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building is a showcase of dozens of views of the seat of American government in oil on canvas, sketch drawing and photos taken in all seasons and at all times of day and night. It is from these many extraordinary pictures and paintings that LePire makes his decisions on which new views will make the cut and be offered on his shop floor.
“We try to educate our customers, not just sell something to them,” LePire said. “We want something new and different,” he says as he holds up a panoramic shot of the building on a sunny afternoon, “but we also want to give meaning to our product.”
But if you venture away from the Congressional gift shops and into the Capitol Hill neighborhood, you might be able to find work by area artists like Thomas Bucci. A former architect who started painting 10 years ago, Bucci has made about a dozen paintings that include the Capitol in one way or another. He sells his Capitol prints along with his many other works at Eastern Market, one of the many outlets around D.C. where local artists exhibit their work.
“I started doing those drawings just because I was here and was surprised when they started selling well,” Bucci said. Today his Capitol prints sell anywhere from $40 to several thousand dollars.
“As an artist, I do believe you could spend your whole life without getting bored of the Capitol,” he said.
Morgan agreed with those sentiments.
“The day will never come when the Capitol no longer has artistic value because of all the changing values we place on the building and the system it represents,” Morgan said. “The Capitol is like a beating heart without a brain because it represents the raw feelings of the country. My role as an artist is to bring out and express that feeling.
“It’s much more than just a pile of stones.”