How the Apotheosis of Washington fresco was created in the Capitol Dome (1865)

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Artist Constantino Brumidi - Apotheosis of Washington painting

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

The magnificent Apotheosis of Washington fresco (below referred to as “Brumidi’s allegorical painting”) was created in the Rotunda eye of the Capitol Dome by Italian-born artist Constantino Brumidi. 

Called his most ambitious work, he painted it over 11 months at the end of the Civil War, as the new dome was being completed. He was an experienced artist, and, in fact, started the project when he was nearly 60 years old.

Apart from being seen every day by thousands of people, this work of art even played a role in modern-day literature, namely Dan Brown’s book, The Lost Symbol. (No actual reports of a hand tattooed with Masonic symbols have been noted, however.)

Beautiful huge Washington DC Capitol Dome artwork

 

Details about the Capitol’s Apotheosis of Washington fresco

Suspended 180 feet above the Rotunda floor, it covers an area of 4,664 square feet. The figures, up to 15 feet tall, were painted to be seen from close up as well as from way below.

Some of the groups and figures were inspired by classical and Renaissance images, especially by those of the Italian master, Raphael.

The word “apotheosis” means the raising of a person to the rank of a god, or the glorification of a person as an ideal; George Washington was so highly revered that the concept seemed fitting.

In the central group, Washington is flanked by two female figures, each holding symbols of two ideas: Liberty/Authority and Victory/Fame. A rainbow arches below their feet.

Female figures in flowing robes symbolize the original 13 states, some holding a banner with the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “out of many, one.”

ALSO SEE: President George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

Six groups of figures on the ground below are seen at the perimeter of the canopy; the following list begins below the central group and proceeds clockwise:

War. Bellona, depicted as Freedom in armor, defeats Tyranny and Kingly Power with her sword and shield.

Science. Minerva, shown with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Samuel F.B. Morse, points to a wheel generating electricity being stored in batteries.

Marine. Neptune holds his trident and Venus helps hold the transatlantic cable, which was being laid at the time the fresco was painted to carry telegraph signals to Europe.

Commerce. Mercury hands a bag of money to Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. Brumidi signed and dated this scene 1865.

Mechanics. Vulcan, with an anvil and forge, stands on a cannon, with a steam engine in the background.

Agriculture. Ceres sits on the McCormick Reaper, accompanied by Young America in a red liberty cap and Flora picking flowers. 

Below, find out about the artist!

Apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol Dome
Apotheosis of Washington, Brumidi’s fresco, is in the canopy of the Capitol dome. Its apex is 180 feet from the rotunda floor, and the painting covers 4,664 square feet.

Meet the artist who created the Apotheosis of Washington painting

Proper honor for Citizen Brumidi: Congress votes a bust for Capitol’s long-forgotten painter (1966)

By George McCue – St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) September 11, 1966

ON FEBRUARY 19, 1880, an Italian-born painter named Constantino Brumidi died in his modest studio at 921 G Street, Washington, DC. He had been out of touch with his small family, and a few friends supervised his burial in Glenwood Cemetery, where his grave was left unmarked.

For the next 72 years, Brumidi was nearly forgotten as a person, although his name — signed to a number of frescoes in the United States Capitol — remained vaguely familiar among those of other Italian artists who had done architectural decoration in and on the building.

One signature persisted in suggesting that there was more to Brumidi than meets the eye, even though what meets the eye in his work throughout the Capitol’s first floor is vast and impressive.

This signature, more prominent than the others, is on a large fresco, “Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities Under the Flag of Truce,” painted in 1857 on the south wall of the then-new House Chamber, and moved in 1961 to the House private dining room.

In the lower right corner of this painting, General Washington’s briefcase is seen on the floor, and here, on a long, trailing strap, are inscribed the words, “C. Brumidi artist. Citizen of the U.S.”

The profusion of painted decoration on the Capitol’s main floor conjures up the idea of a small army of painters hard at work for some years, or one man busy for a lifetime.

Brumidi did most of it in 25 years — the Senate Reception Room, the President’s Room, the former Office of the Vice President, the Democratic Policy Committee room and corridors of the Senate Wing; the House Appropriations Committee Room, and the immense concavity of the great central dome.

ALSO SEE: The real Gettysburg Address: Photos, analysis & full text of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech (1863)

Apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol Dome artwork

BRUMIDI WAS 60 YEARS of age when he began painting the fresco in the eye of the dome, “The Apotheosis of Washington.”

He was 75 when, at work on the frieze that extends around the 300-foot circumference of the Rotunda, he slipped on the scaffolding, and hung by his hands from a ladder 58 feet above the floor until workmen could climb up to rescue him. He never resumed his painting.

Although weakened by his accident, he continued to work on cartoons for the frieze project almost to the day of his death.

Then the long obscurity. The Italian artist who celebrated his American citizenship by proclaiming it on George Washington’s briefcase strap in a hall of Congress engaged the fascinated attention of Myrtle Cheney Murdock, the wife of Representative John R. Murdock of Arizona.

ALSO SEE: Fighting for the Union: 20 African American soldiers from the Civil War

In the 1940s, she cataloged all the Brumidi paintings in the Capitol, then began asking the old District burial grounds to search for the Brumidi burial record. Glenwood Cemetery, in Northeast Washington, reported the grave in its Lot 70, site 6.

Mrs. Murdock found the lot surrounded by an old iron fence, with the name “Germon,” the maiden name of Brumidi’s divorced wife, on the gate.

She determined that, as her personal tribute to Brumidi’s 25 years of work in the Capitol, she would paint the iron fence around his grave lot.

In the spring of 1946, when she was doing that very thing, she was startled by a voice behind her inquiring what she was doing. The great-grandniece of Lola Germon, Brumidi’s wife, had passed the cemetery on a streetcar, noticed the woman painting the fence around the family lot, caught another streetcar back to the cemetery and met Mrs. Murdock.

This led to study of a family album and of letters and documents that helped unravel some of the Brumidi history.

Artist Constantino Brumidi
Artist Constantino Brumidi

CONSTANTINO BRUMIDI was born in 1805 and grew up in Rome. He was admitted to the Rome Academy of Arts when he was only 13, and at about 35, he restored the Raphael frescoes in the Vatican loggia.

He fled to the United States as a political exile in 1852, and within two months, filed an application for citizenship.

MORE: Statue of Liberty construction: See her like you’ve never seen her before

The Capitol was being rebuilt and enlarged, and Brurnidi applied for employment. At that time there were few American stone carvers capable of executing large architectural commissions, and no fresco painters.

A good many Italian artists and artisans were imported to work on the Capitol, and Brumidi appeared at the time when architect Thomas U Walter was needing fresco work.

Fresco painting is an ancient art, going back to the Minoans and Etruscans. The painter makes a sketch in color, then enlarges it to cartoons — drawings in the actual size of the finished work. The drawn lines are perforated with a wheel, and the cartoons cut into portions each of which will represent a day’s painting.

Two coats of lime plaster are “thrown” on the wall; a third coat is then applied, beginning at a corner of the space and carried to the borders of the first cartoon.

THE DESIGN IS TRANSFERRED to the plaster by pouncing a dust bag along the perforations. The mineral pigment, suspended in water, is brushed on, is absorbed by the moist plaster and combines with the lime in it.

The colors become brilliant and sparkling upon drying, and because they are integral with the plaster — not just a surface coating — they are as permanent as their support. (The murals by Mitchell Siporin and Edward Millman in the St. Louis Post Office were done by this technique).

Beginning in 1855, Brumidi covered the Capitol walls and ceilings with portraits, panels, medallions, allegorical groups, historic episodes, cherubs, Madonnas, ornate foliage, and geometrical devices.

His work often was savagely criticized as being “tawdry and exuberant,” with “conventional gods and goddesses” from “heathen mythology,” and as representing European traditions.

But the Capitol itself represents European traditions, and its decoration happened to occur in the twilight period of neoclassic taste.

In the words of E. P. Richardson, an authority on American art, it is to the great credit of Architect Walter “that the extensions of the Capitol wings created the only public building of its period in the United States designed and executed, with all its enrichment of form and color and humanistic imagery, as a single consistent whole.”

After beginning work in the Capitol, Brumidi said to a friend: “I no longer have any desire for fame or fortune. 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.”

In 1952, at the urging of Mrs. Murdock, Congress authorized a bronze marker for Brumidi’s grave. Recently, Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill to commission a bronze bust of the artist, to be placed in the Capitol.

The bill has passed both houses, and the Joint Committee on the Library will select a sculptor. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving citizen of the U.S.

Artwork close-up - Apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol Dome

ALSO SEE: George Washington’s presidency: Lessons learned from his time as America’s leader

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