I thought Tuesday’s Twitter/Facebook post on Albert Bierstadt deserved a larger audience. Like many artists in America during the 19th century, Bierstadt viewed the Capitol aspirationally–getting his work hung in the building would both confirm his elevated status in the art world and provide a sizable payday. One of his mentors, Emanuel Leutze, had recently completed a commission in the Capitol, and Bierstadt’s contemporaries (and competitors) provided works to Congress throughout the 19th century. In 1866, Bierstadt lobbied for and won a commission to provide two large paintings, either landscapes or on historical subjects, to fill spaces in the front wall of the House chamber.
Following up in 1867, Bierstadt provided the Library Committee (responsible for acquiring artwork for the Capitol) with a bold request for $40,000 for each painting, far more than any other artist had received to that point. Congress was so disturbed by the amount that it directed the Committee to tell Bierstadt that no such appropriation would be forthcoming.
Beirstadt apparently continued to work on the proposed paintings, and never completely gave up on the getting the recognition he felt his art deserved. In 1874, he convinced the Architect of the Capitol to let him hang two works in the House chamber–without acquiring permission from the Joint Committee on the Library. He went so far as to work on the canvases while they were on display. The publicity seems to have outweighed the affront, however, and shortly thereafter Congress purchased one of the exhibited paintings, The Discovery of the Hudson, for $10,000.
By 1878, after continued exhibition of the rejected landscape and additional lobbying efforts, Beirstadt had his reward: Congress purchased a newer work, Entrance Into Monterey, to complement the Hudson painting. Then as now, savvy marketing and important connections were key elements in convincing Congress to act.
The paintings hung in the House chamber until 1901. After several moves and a conservation effort, they now reside in the grand stairwell on the Capitol’s East Front and are visible to the public. I wonder if Bierstadt would prefer the increased visibility of a more public area to the prestigious placement in the House chamber?
Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives website, Art & History section
Jones, Kimberly A., “Albert Bierstadt: History Painter for the U.S. Capitol,” in The United States Capitol: Designing and Decorating a National Icon, Donald R. Kennon, ed., Ohio University Press, 2000.