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Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol

Architect of the Capitol (1998) 

In her preface to Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol, Barbara Wolanin, Curator of the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, states the challenge this book hopes to meet: “to create a three-dimensional picture of the painter who was so skilled in creating the illusion of three dimensions in his paintings.” While focusing primarily on Brumidi’s murals in the Capitol, Wolanin and other contributors add greatly to our understanding of Brumidi by discussing his background, training, and work in Italy; his painting techniques; and the architectural, political, and technical contexts in which he worked. A secondary focus is how modern conservation and restoration efforts have made it possible to more fully appreciate Brumidi’s art.

Brumidi came to the United States with the promise of church commissions, and during his first two years here, he worked in New York, Massachusetts and Mexico City. However, the course of his artistry would be most affected by a December 1854 meeting with Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, the Army Corps of Engineers officer who was supervising the construction of extensions to the Capitol. In a journal entry recounting their meeting, Meigs confessed to not remembering Brumidi’s name, describing him as “a lively old man with a very red nose, either from Mexican suns or French brandies.” Impressed with Brumidi’s credentials, Meigs offered him the opportunity to paint a sample work on the wall of the room Meigs was using as a temporary office.

From this beginning, Brumidi and a large group of assistants and fellow mural painters went on to create some of the Capitol’s most significant pieces of art. Wolanin and her contributors provide background for and insight into all of Brumidi's work, from the ornate corridors in the Senate wing, and the richly painted Reception Room adjacent to the Senate chamber to an oil sketch entitled Telegraph that Brumidi used as a model for painting a fresco in the Senate Post Office. Considerable attention is devoted to “Brumidi’s masterpiece,” The Apotheosis of Washington, painted on the canopy over the eye of the Capitol dome, 180 feet above the floor of the Rotunda, and the Frieze of American History, designed and begun by Brumidi and later completed by two other artists.

Brumidi worked on drawings for the frieze until losing consciousness the day before he died on February 19, 1880. Later that year, he was eulogized by Senator Daniel Voorhees, who stated: “It matters little, however, whether we or those who come after us do anything to perpetuate his memory. The walls of his Capitol will hold his fame fresh and ever increasing as long as they themselves shall stand.”