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Constantino Brumidi: Michelangelo of the United States Capitol

Myrtle Cheney Murdock (1950) 

In late 1857, when Constantino Brumidi painted a mural of General George Washington receiving an emissary from the British commander requesting time to consider terms of surrender, he signed the work "C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S." This unique signature was probably a response to criticism of Brumidi as a foreigner, although he had recently become a U.S. citizen.

Eighty years later, Myrtle Cheney Murdock, wife of Arizona Representative John Murdock, stood in front of Brumidi's mural, her curiosity piqued by the artist's signature. Out of this encounter grew more than a dozen years of research by Murdock that culminated in the publication of Constantino Brumidi: Michelangelo of the United States Capitol. Architect of the Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin, whose own book on Brumidi built on Murdock's efforts, praised the work as a "pioneering monograph." Murdock's book played a key role in drawing renewed attention to Brumidi and his work.

When her husband took office in 1937, Murdock became interested in the Capitol and she soon focused on Brumidi. Murdock writes of asking herself: "How can countless exquisite frescoes and paintings adorn our Capitol Building and yet the American people have little or no knowledge of their existence?" Readily confessing that she was "neither an artist nor an art critic," Murdock nonetheless "searched out every frescoed wall and ceiling, every painted panel, lunette, or medallion in committee rooms, corridors, and rotunda that were attributed to the Italian artist." The resulting book is a summary of Brumidi's life and work with approximately 40 illustrations. It was the first publication to include color images of the artist's work. In addition, she made extensive use of primary sources such as working sketches, letters, photos, and pay vouchers, and she found works by Brumidi in private collections.

In the course of her research, Murdock became interested in Lola Germon, Brumidi's American-born wife, who was said to have modeled for some of the figures that Brumidi painted on the Capitol walls and ceilings. While searching for information on Germon, Murdock tried to locate Brumidi's grave. Her quest led her to Glenwood Cemetery in northeast Washington, D.C., where Brumidi was buried in what turned out to be an unmarked grave in the Germon family plot. Largely through Murdock's efforts, on February 19, 1952--the 72nd anniversary of Brumidi's death--a monument to mark the gravesite was unveiled. Inscribed on the marker is a wish expressed by Brumidi in 1855: "My one ambition and my daily prayer is that I may live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty."