The Capitol’s oldest artwork is undergoing a restoration project equivalent to a standard cleaning at the dentist, all to return the Rotunda to its full splendor before the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center this fall.
During the two-month project commissioned by the Architect of the Capitol, each of the eight paintings that line the perimeter of the Rotunda is being cleaned and refinished. David Olin of Olin Conservation, the company tapped for the project, said the endeavor is as much a study of art restoration as it is an actual restoration project.
“For us as conservators today, it’s fascinating to see, one, how the paintings were created, but also how they were conserved,” Olin said, adding the project will cost $40,000, a figure the AOC would not confirm. “Some of the techniques we use today they used in a more crude form.”
In addition to removing built-up residue, the four conservators working in the Rotunda are smoothing out five-inch-wide bubbles on two of the paintings, William Powell’s “Discovery of the Mississippi” and John Vanderlyn’s “Landing of Columbus.” The works are lined with an aluminum surface that bubbles up with sun exposure.
“When a painting stresses like that, it stresses the paint layer,” Olin explained. “It’s very unsightly.”
Wear and tear on the priceless paintings has been steady during their nearly two-century life span. The paintings endured Washington’s stifling August humidity for nearly 100 years before air conditioning was brought to the Capitol in the 1930s. And each passing tourist and cocktail party brings dust, dirt and grime.
The entire Rotunda is being spruced up as the office prepares to open the state-of-the-art CVC in November. The carved wooden frames around each of the eight paintings, flanked with rosette-embellished corners, were cleaned in 2006 for the first time since 1953, as were the 16 wooden benches that line the diameter of the Rotunda. Conservationists returned the 23-karat gold-leaved frames to shining splendor during an 18-month painstaking project that required worn corners and dents to be prepped with plaster and glue, polished and covered with bronze power paint. The benches dating to 1859 were cleaned and refinished with “Florentine bronze.”
[IMGCAP(1)]The Rotunda’s eight paintings are among the oldest pieces of artwork in the entire Capitol. With a $32,000 appropriation, Congress commissioned artist John Trumbull, who served in the Continental Army under Gen. George Washington, to create four Revolutionary period paintings in 1817. The result was four paintings that stood 12 feet high and 18 feet wide: “Declaration of Independence,” “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis,” “Surrender of General Burgoyne” and “General George Washington Resigning His Commission.”
Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison watched the arts project with a careful eye, and true to the parliamentary style, weighed in regularly on what its focus should be.
“Jefferson and Madison were very interested in having a painting of Washington resigning his commission,” Senate Associate Historian Don Ritchie noted. “They wanted it to be remembered that the civilian government was superior to the military.”
Four additional pieces focusing on exploration joined the Rotunda from 1840 to 1855: “Baptism of Pocahontas,” “Embarkation of the Pilgrims,” “Discovery of the Mississippi” and “Landing of Columbus.”
All eight paintings underwent a full conservation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Because of the massive size of the works, the project was done in the Rotunda. Each of the paintings was taken off the wall and laid flat, deep-cleaned, resealed and touched up to bring them to 1840s splendor.
The latest cleaning “has made a big difference. The colors are much more brilliant,” an AOC spokeswoman said. “These are such unique paintings and deserve special attention.”
The ornate paintings were veiled in 1865 during the two-day tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, the first president to lie in state in the Rotunda. But the eight historical pictures have provided a backdrop to hundreds of special occasions in the Rotunda, the heart of the Capitol and its ceremonial center.
They have graced presidential inaugurations and signing ceremonies for landmark legislation. The massive paintings hung in the background as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and 40 years later, during the memorial service for civil rights leader Rosa Parks. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled leader, was surrounded by the scenes of independence and democracy in 1991 as he called on Members to support his native country’s attempt to gain independence from China, and again in 2007 when he received the Congressional Gold Medal.
An AOC spokeswoman said the paintings were originally slated to be cleaned before the Capitol’s bicentennial celebration in 2000, but the later timing has turned out to be fortunate.
“It’s really perfect that the Rotunda will be refreshed by the time the CVC opens,” she said. “They’ll be cleaner and brighter, and we’re really excited.”