Rotunda 360 - Indigenous Peoples in Capitol Art

Graphic to begin experience.

The Rotunda is the heart and symbolic center of the United States Capitol. In this space, art and architecture weave together the national origin story as Americans perceived it during the 19th century.

Today, explore Indigenous representations in Capitol Rotunda art in this new, interactive 360 experience. Listen to the voices of Native Nation community members as they contextualize four artworks in the Capitol Rotunda and offer a deeper look into their history, language and culture.

Featuring guest speakers:

  • Jose Barreiro, Taíno, commenting on the “Landing of Columbus”
  • Jeremy Johnson, Delaware Tribe of Indians, commenting on “William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”
  • Ashley Spivey, Pamunkey Indian Tribe, commenting on the “Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas”
  • Kevin Krigsvold, Pamunkey Indian Tribe, commenting on the “Baptism of Pocahontas”

The interviews and audio clips included in this experience represent the personal reflections and opinions of the interviewees and are not the official views or opinions of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, the Architect of the Capitol, or Members of Congress.

The Rotunda in the 19th Century

Congress commissioned the relief sculptures, history paintings, and painted frieze scenes in the Rotunda throughout the 1800s. They mirror then widely held views about European colonization and the origins of the United States. In 1826, the first group of four paintings – John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War scenes – were installed in the Rotunda, each one depicting a pivotal moment before, during or after the Revolutionary War.

The second group of four paintings, the bas-reliefs, and the “Frieze of American History,” designed by Constantino Brumidi in 1859, express the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that expansion throughout the United States was justified and inevitable. Explorers were viewed as the original founding fathers, and much of the Rotunda art depicts scenes of First Contact and exploration.

In the 1820s, architect Charles Bulfinch oversaw the creation of the four sandstone bas-reliefs, one above each entrance to the Rotunda. They highlight seminal events linked to different geographic regions tied to the nation’s founding and dramatize peaceful and violent encounters between white settlers and Native Americans. All were completed between 1825 and 1827.

History Paintings

All the Rotunda paintings present history as an event, not a process, aiming to seize and glorify a moment. They are not objective pictorial records: they compress time, combining a sequence of events into a single image. When Congress commissioned them beginning in 1817, there was no national gallery, and the Rotunda paintings came to be viewed as “national paintings,” increasing their importance.

Although John Trumbull had hoped he would receive commissions for all eight paintings, in 1836 Congress selected four different artists to fill the remaining empty frames “to illustrate the discovery of America; the settlement of the United States; the history of the Revolution; or of the adoption of the Constitution.” Commissions went to John Vanderlyn, Henry Inman, Robert W. Weir, and John G. Chapman. Upon Inman’s death, Congress selected his student, William H. Powell, to paint “Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto.”

Relief Sculptures

Charles Bulfinch, the third Architect of the Capitol, reserved four spaces, one above each entrance to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol for sculptural decoration. Bulfinch conceived them as an extension of the architecture, and he played a key role in selecting the artists and suggesting potential subjects, though his suggestions were not executed.

He explained in an 1822 letter to sculptor Enrico Causici that the east and west reliefs should portray “the discovery of America by Columbus or the landing of Captain Smith in Virginia,” and in the other “the Declaration of Independence or the adoption of the Federal Constitution.” 

In the 1820s, American sculpture was still in its infancy, so Capitol architects looked to foreign artists to execute architectural sculptures. Two Italian and one French sculptor won commissions for the sandstone reliefs.

Frieze of American History

Designed by Constantino Brumidi in 1859 to look like a carved stone relief, “The Frieze of American History” is actually two-dimensional. Captain Montgomery Meigs, the person in charge of the construction of the Capitol extension, conceived the frieze to illustrate “The gradual progress of a continent from the depths of barbarism to the height of civilization.”

Brumidi based many of the frieze’s scenes on 19th-century popular histories of the United States. Following Brumidi’s death in 1880, his assistant Filippo Costaggini executed the eight remaining panels from Brumidi’s sketches. In 1953, Allyn Cox added three panels to the original 16 sketched by Brumidi, completing the frieze.

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