Skip to content

House to Get Paintings Of Black, Woman Members

Depictions of women and minorities have been conspicuously absent from the halls of Congress for decades. And although the paucity has been long lamented, up until recently change has been slow.

But inertia has finally given way.

Last week, the House Fine Arts Board approved the commission of portraits of the first black seated in the House and the first woman elected to the chamber. Soon gracing Capitol corridors will be the likeness of former Reps. Joseph Rainey (R-S.C.), a former slave elected during Reconstruction, and Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.), a women’s suffragist who couldn’t yet vote when she was elected in 1916.

A longtime proponent of having artwork in the Capitol reflect the diversity of American history, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), pressed House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to include a portrait of a black American in the House collection. Ney also chairs the Fine Arts Board.

“Chaka during a hearing last year had pointed out that there were no pictures of African-Americans,” Ney said. “I thought it was a good idea.”

Since that hearing, the Senate unveiled a portrait of former Sen. Blanche Bruce (R-Miss.), the first black to serve a full term in the Senate. The Bruce portrait hangs on the third floor on the Senate side of the Capitol.

The portraits of Bruce and Rainey will be the only representation of black Americans among the nearly 300 that hang throughout the Capitol. A bust of Martin Luther King Jr., now on display in the Rotunda, was commissioned by Congress in 1986.

“Out of the hundreds of portraits in the U.S. Capitol, we are finally getting this long-overdue acknowledgement,” Fattah said.

“In symbol and in substance, African-American representation in the U.S. Congress is a continuing milestone towards a more perfect union. In recognizing the legacy of the first African-American in Congress, we inspire future generations to serve,” Fattah said in a statement.

Ney credited fellow Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) for suggesting the portrait of Rankin, a social worker who later ran for Senate.

The Senate has also commissioned portraits of two of its prominent Members: Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) and Hattie Caraway (D-Ark.), the first woman elected to that body.

The House Fine Arts Board also approved commissioning a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, as the House does not have him in its collection. There is a statute of Lincoln in the Rotunda and a bust in the Crypt, but both are in the Architect of the Capitol’s collection.

Although the proposals are awaiting funding from Appropriations, all three portraits are slated to be funded by the House, instead of private individuals.

“In this case, since obviously no one is around that was involved with these individuals, the House is just going to go ahead and commission it,” Ney explained.

“We need to also explore other portraits,” he said of efforts to better represent minorities and women.

As chairman of the Fine Arts Board, Ney can approve portraits in three categories: former Speakers, former committee chairmen and individuals who fall into a “special” category, which is how the latest portraits are classified.

The House pays for the Speakers’ portraits, while the committee chairman usually raise funds to commission their own likenesses. Average commissions cost $35,000 each.

Because much of the art in the Capitol represents groups of leaders — portraits of former Speakers and committee chairmen and busts of former vice presidents — opportunities to depict women and minorities are limited.

“It’s true that there’s not a lot of minority representation, but it’s partly because of the way that the art gets there,” said Barbara Wolanin, the curator for the Capitol. “It was never set up as a representative collection. Now we look at it and feel that it’s not very representative at all.”

And although there are some Hispanic and American Indian pieces, portraits of other minority groups — including Asian-Americans — are lacking.

When asked about the underrepresentation of blacks in the Capitol’s art collection, Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said the focus of the Congressional Black Caucus and individual black Members has largely been directed elsewhere.

“There are so many heavy and profound activities right now that a lot of people are focused in other directions,” Davis said, referring to the disproportionate number of black men in special education classes and the level of unemployment in many predominately black neighborhoods. “I think that those issues are taking a tremendous amount of time. We’ll deal with the statutes, but we’ll also deal with those more salient priorities.”

CBC President Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) echoed Davis’ comments on the importance of this issue vis-á-vis other priorities of the caucus.

“Statuary Hall, the Rotunda, the Capitol, all of those things are important,” he said. “There are things that we have to deal with. The symbols are very important, but the human beings and making sure they get where God meant them to go is more important. I want people to be able to even visit Washington, to be able to read what it says under the statue.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a CBC member, acknowledged that the CBC needs to devote more attention to the issue.

“It speaks to how far we have to go. When America comes to its Capitol, do they see a picture [of an African-American]? Do they see a statue? They do not.”

Mentioning that a handful of CBC members sit on the Government Reform Committee, Lee said getting more portraits of minorities on the walls of Congress would go far in terms of symbolism.

“What it does is says that we are part of America,” Lee said.

Recent Stories

Capitol Lens | Show chopper

After a ‘rough’ start, Sen. Fetterman opens up about his mental health journey

Supreme Court enters crunch time for term loaded with big issues

Biden shifts from defending his record to warning about Trump

As heat waves intensify, so does criticism of government support

Supreme Court tees up case on state youth transgender care ban