–Shana Klein, Ph.D., Art History, University of New Mexico; USCHS Capitol Fellow
March 11 has been declared National Johnny Appleseed Day. What better way to celebrate the occasion than by looking to the history of the Brumidi Corridors in the United States Capitol, where depictions of apples and other fruits decorate the hallways. Italian artist Constantino Brumidi painted the majority of the Capitol’s north wing corridors between 1857 and 1859. Unlike other spaces in the Capitol devoted to heavy-handed allegorical scenes and history paintings, Brumidi devoted these hallways walked by nineteenth-century congressmen and presidents to ornamental depictions of fruit and flowers. And not just any fruit: Brumidi depicted the apple 32 times according to scholar and former U.S. Capitol Historical Society Fellow Jamie Whitacre in 2007 (Endnote 1). After surveying all of the fruits and flowers depicted in the corridors, Whitacre found that apples were one of the most frequently depicted fruits, third only to grapes and plums (rendered 53 and 36 times, respectively). Since then, conservators have discovered other fruits represented in the Capitol Building, including a banana. (If painted in the mid-nineteenth century, this is a surprising discovery given that the tropical banana would have been unfamiliar to most Americans at the time.)
Brumidi and his team of painters likely rendered the apple 32 times in the corridors because the apple was considered a uniquely American fruit. Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed, writing, “the apple is our national fruit…Man would be less solitary, less friended, less supported..withheld [of] this ornamental and social fruit” (Endnote 2). Preacher Henry Ward Beecher felt similarly, saying, “the apple is, beyond all question, the American fruit…the true democratic fruit…” (Endnote 3). Not surprisingly, the apple was used for the nation’s most patriotic dishes, including a historic recipe for George Washington pie.
Apples, however, are not indigenous to North America. The fruit was brought over by English colonists in the 1700s, who likely imported the fruit to bring a sense of home to the New World. It would then take decades for the apple to be eaten raw since raw fruit was generally thought to be unsavory and poisonous before the Civil War. Apples, instead, were largely used for cider—an alcoholic beverage that displeased many supporters of the temperance movement who felt that all forms of alcohol were sinful.
Johnny Appleseed, née John Chapman, helped revamp the reputation of the apple as a patriotic, virtuous food. Born with an entrepreneurial spirit, Appleseed roamed the western frontier (in today’s states of Ohio and Pennsylvania), donating apple seedlings for Americans to grow their own orchards. While Appleseed’s donation of seeds has been historically viewed as an act of charity to help American farmers, it was also a clever strategy to advance national expansion through the cultivation of western land under the prevailing doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Appleseed, nevertheless, proclaimed that his mission was charitable and religious, encouraging people to cultivate “God’s fruit” on “God’s land” (Endnote 4).
More than 30 years later, Brumidi would paint the patriotic apple across the golden hallways of the Capitol’s south corridor. He painted the fruit in a neo-classical, trompe l’oeil style by manipulating elements of scale and shadow to make the fruit look three-dimensional. His application of red and yellow paint was so convincing that viewers no doubt felt tempted to pluck the fruit right off of the wall. (The dimensionality and tromp l’oeil effect of the apples has since been flattened because of varnishing done in the later twentieth century—a misdirection the today’s conservators are trying to correct.) Brumidi may have modeled the painting after real fruits and flowers, which would have been easily accessible to him with the U.S. Botanical Garden on the neighboring western property of the Capitol grounds (Endnote 5).
The patriotic associations of the apple, however, did not prevent Brumidi from garnering criticism for his murals, which critics claimed were too ornate and without national history and character. A number of congressmen similarly felt that the muralled halls were snobbish and unlike the plainness and simplicity of the American spirit (Endnote 6). Brumidi faced the unique challenge of decorating the Capitol in a worldly style without compromising its distinctly American character. Unlike the representations of pineapples or recently-discovered banana in the Capitol, Brumidi’s depiction of apples would have represented American identity to its viewers and the rich legacy of the fruit left by the mythical Johnny Appleseed.
1. Jamie Whitacre, “The Fruits and Flowers of the Brumidi Corridors,” The Capitol Dome 44.2 (Spring 2007), 8-14.
2. These quotes were gathered by Bruce Webber in his text, The Apple of America: The Apple in Nineteenth-Century American Art (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 1993).
4. For a more thorough cultural history of Johnny Appleseed, see: William Kerrigan, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012); Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2001); and Robert Price, Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1954).
5. The U.S. Botanical Garden was formally established in 1822 from a collection of plant specimens and seeds amassed by naval officer Charles Wilkes during his journey in the Pacific. More information can be found in the archival files in the office of the Curator of the Capitol.
6. This information was collected by former Curator of the Capitol Dr. Barbara Wolanin on page 94 of her seminal and encyclopedic text on the artist, Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol (Washington, DC: United States Congress, 1998).