New Catalogue Gives Historical Context to Senate’s Art

Posted April 20, 2004 at 2:58pm

The Capitol Building is both a work of art and a monument to history, a perfect marriage of form and timeless function. So it makes sense that the structure that has housed the nation’s greatest leaders should also act as a museum for its greatest political paintings and sculptures.

With those Congressional works of art in mind, the United States Senate Library recently released , “The United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art,” in an attempt to give those interested a historical context to the pieces of art that adorn the hallways and offices of the Senate Chamber.

To help promote the book, Senate Curator Diane Skvarla and art historian William Kloss gave a lecture on Monday in the Russell Senate Office Building as part of National Library Week to staffers eager to learn of the history behind what most view simply as political decor.

“We highlighted different pieces for different reasons, some for historical reasons and some for artistic ones,” Skvarla said.

“The United States Senate Catalogue of Fine Art” highlights160 works of art, including 82 sculptures, 75 paintings, two enameled mosaics and one stained-glass window. Included in those works are the likenesses of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Theodore Roosevelt.

Part of Skvarla and Kloss’ oral version of the book was the history of the vice presidential busts that line the second- and third-floor Senate halls.

In 1885, the Senate commissioned a bust to memorialize Vice President Henry Wilson, who died from a stroke he suffered 10 years earlier in his Senate office.

The bust is still displayed in the vice president’s ceremonial office, and its creation started the tradition of decorating the legislative body with the faces of those who were called into the chamber only to break tie-votes.

The book and its historians point out that the truth, especially in Washington, is often subject to one’s perspective, as is the case with the bust of Vice President Elbridge Gerry, whose likeness was sculpted by Herbert Adams more than a century after he died. The bust captures Gerry as a strong and able man, despite the fact that he was very ill during his tenure as vice president.

Now former vice presidents get to choose the artist who renders their face in marble, making it a safe bet, that as in the past, the works of art will err on the attractive side.

Last year former Vice President Dan Quayle’s bust was completed, and work on Al Gore’s is underway.

Also showcased by the book and brought up by the two historians was Francis Carpenter’s painting of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, a work now located over the Senate’s west staircase.

The painting features President Abraham Lincoln along with several Cabinet members reading over the historic document. According to Skvarla, Lincoln’s secretary of war commented in 1866 that those positioned to the left of Lincoln were opposed to the document, while those found on the right were in favor.

The painting was first displayed in the White House before it toured the country with Carpenter for 10 years, allowing the artist to succumb to the desire of altering his work in an attempt to make improvements. Unfortunately, Skvarla said, the added attention actually subtracted from the final piece by “making Lincoln’s head weaker.”

“The moral is leave well enough alone,” Kloss said.

Continuing the celebration of National Library Week, the Senate Library will hold a dessert reception Thursday in Room B-15 of the Russell Building.