Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy. They sound like the plot points for a romantic tearjerker, but they are in fact the titles of three drawings recently donated to the Prints and Photographs Division by the family of the artist, George Randolph Barse, Jr. Barse was one of nearly 40 artists and sculptors charged with decorating the interior of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress with dozens of murals, frescoes and sculptures. When the Jefferson Building opened in 1897, Barse’s eight female personifications of genres of literature graced the East Corridor on the second floor of the building, overlooking the Great Hall.
In this photograph, taken from the second floor, two of Barse’s graceful ladies sit above paired columns in the East Corridor, framing the large central mosaic of Roman goddess Minerva. The left figure is Lyrica and the right is History. The full complement of paintings includes: Lyrica (Lyric Poetry), Tragedy, Comedy, History, Erotica (Love Poetry), Tradition, Fancy, and Romance. The women wear classical robes and evoke their type of literature through expression and objects in hand.
The East Corridor of the Jefferson Building is a popular spot for visitors. Steps lead up to the featured mosaic of the Roman goddess of Wisdom, Minerva. Visitors continue up the stairs to the gallery that overlooks the Main Reading Room. Those waiting for this upward journey are surrounded by murals and decorations, including Barse’s work. Millions of visitors have gazed up at these eight serene figures over the last 120-plus years.
The figure of Romance can be seen on the left side of each frame in this 1903 stereograph of the Jefferson Building’s East Corridor, which, when viewed through a stereo viewer, gives a full 3-D experience:
George R. Barse, Jr. was a well-regarded American painter, born in Detroit, Michigan in 1861, who trained at the Chicago Art Institute and the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Academie Julien in Paris. During a stint in Italy, Barse met and married Rosina Ferrara, model and muse for such painters as John Singer Sargent and Charles Sprague Pearce. In the years following his return, Barse (as well as Pearce, in fact) completed the drawings and the final paintings of his interpretations of Literature in time for the 1897 opening of the Jefferson Building to the public. Barse is said to have painted directly onto the wall for his panels in the Library, rather than on canvas as some artists did, eschewing the comforts of a studio for a scaffolding perch.
Members of the Barse family have owned the preparatory drawings for three of his paintings for well over a century. And now, thanks to the generosity of Barse’s great niece and two of his great-great nieces, the drawings for Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy join the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division. Barse’s descendants personally delivered the drawings to the Library, so we took the opportunity to reunite the early works with the finished products, as seen in the two photos below.
The drawings are in good company in our division’s collections, joining the preparatory sketches and drawings of artwork in the Jefferson Building by such other artists as Elihu Vedder (a good friend of Barse and the artist behind the large mosaic of Minerva) and Kenyon Cox.
Curator Katherine Blood, who led the acquisitions effort for the Library, remarked: “We are so grateful for this extraordinary gift. Now we can see, for the first time, Barse’s original drawings in dialogue with the finished Great Hall murals; gleaning insight into his creative process as he helped shape the look and spirit of a newly minted Library of Congress.”
- Enjoy photos of all painted panels by George Randolph Barse, Jr. in the Thomas Jefferson Building in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.
- Explore early photographs of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in the Stereograph Collection. (The original Library of Congress building was not named the Thomas Jefferson Building until 1980.)
- Published the same year as the new Library of Congress Building opened to the public (1897), Herbert Small’s Handbook of the New Library of Congress (fully digitized) provided visitors descriptions of the building’s architecture, sculpture and interior mosaics and paintings. Read the entry on “Mr. Barse’s Paintings” on page 72 of the handbook.