Ronald M. Johnson
In my classes, I can often tell when the students think I am pushing something that they are not so sure about. So recently, when I asked them to review The Frieze of American History, located under the great dome of the U.S Capitol, for insights into understanding the contemporary conditions faced by Native Americans, I quickly sensed their resistance. Why look to a nineteenth-century panel of historical settings on American history for answers into today’s world?
Not an unreasonable question, I thought. Why would one use valuable class time examining a set of images which, at first glance, appear to romanticize, even denigrate, the role of American Indians? It was my intent, I said in response, to demonstrate that at the very center of federal power, located within the building that houses Congress, there exists examples of historical images which still resonate and convey meaning for the twenty-first century viewer. Their question, however, forced me to examine more carefully my proposal and, as a result, we were able to develop a deeper insight into our collective, evolving sense of national identity.
The nineteen panels of the much viewed frieze, a circular painting made to appear as sculptured stone and located just below the windows in the dome, represent a much larger story too complex to tell in this blog. Suffice to say that Constantino Brumidi, an Italian immigrant sculptor retained by General Montgomery Meigs to provide art and decorations for the interior of the Capitol, created the original sketch or the panels in 1859. After a lengthy delay due to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Brumidi began work in 1877 on a series of portrayals of important events in American history. With his death in 1880, the task was taken up by Filippo Costaggini who completed the final eight panels based on the original plan for the frieze.
Upon reviewing the Architect of the Capitol’s on-line images of the frieze panels, my students were able to see how the Native American experience was well represented in the panels. To narrow our focus, however, I asked them examine closely the 1884 panel entitled The Death of Tecumseh to demonstrate how time and context can change the meaning of artistic representations. In this dramatic scene, based on the Battle of The Thames which occurred in 1813 in Canada when American and Indian fighters fought, the panel depicts the fighting while off to the side a wounded Tecumseh lies dying. As historical tableaux, the panel signifies the Americans winning a decisive battle against an enemy who sought to block their movement westward. The panel documents the original vision that Brumidi had in creating the frieze sketch, the artistry of Costaggini, and the popular belief held then that Indians stood against the emergence of the American nation.
With that in mind, I asked my students what had changed since 1884 with regard to the panel? At first we talked of how, over time, constructed images of the past often undergo a period of deconstruction, a rethinking of what they symbolize. Later generations then may reconstruct the meaning of the image to allow for social and cultural changes. Using that format, we concluded the since the creation of the panel, the death of Tecumseh had evolved from that of a fallen enemy to an individual who fought for Indian rights. As the first Native American leader to call for an inter-tribal confederation to resist American expansion, he is seen today as a forerunner of later Indian leaders who sought to redress the injustices that came with conquest and resettlement on federal reservations. Even more,Tecumseh and his actions are now viewed as integral to understanding our national history, an example of our increasingly diverse and complex American identity.
As a class, we concluded that we view the Brumidi images in The Frieze of American History with different eyes than nineteenth-century Americans. The students saw this as a testimony to how culture and perceptions shift over the passage of time. We see Tecumseh as less the slain enemy, more the fallen leader who fought the good battle. He has become more one of us, no longer alien or to be rejected, his life, and death, an important reminder of our broadening sense of nationhood. Monuments and art from another era remain unchanged, as they should, but the context in which they are viewed and the insights they provide do change. In the end, all of us in the class came to realize that this means we have changed as well.
On-line sources for this blog can be found at: http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/other-paintings-and-murals/frieze-american-history and http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-CDOC-103sdoc27/pdf/GPO-CDOC-103sdoc27-10-12.pdf. Also, see Barbara Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi — Artist of the Capitol (Senate Document 103-27, 103rd Congress, Session 2, Issued July 11, 2000).