“The Arts” and Kenyon Cox: A Mural in the Thomas Jefferson Building

The following is a post by Kristi Finefield, Reference Specialist in the Prints & Photographs Division, and member of the Picture This blog team. As the Library of Congress marks its 220th year, we take the opportunity to explore one example of its efforts to sustain and celebrate the arts in its physical spaces.

Above the north doors of the barrel-vaulted Southwest Gallery, there is a mural painting known simply as “The Arts.” Its companion piece, also painted by American painter Kenyon Cox, is at the far end of the room above the south doors, “The Sciences.” Part of a remarkable effort to decorate the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building with painting and sculpture, these murals also provide an opportunity to better understand how such large scale art is created. “The Arts” is 34 feet wide by 9 ½ feet tall. Through the Prints and Photographs Division’s collections, we can peek into the artist’s process. Let’s start with the finished mural, photographed in place:

Second Floor, Southwest Gallery. Panel of The Arts by Kenyon Cox. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.02238

Second Floor, Southwest Gallery. Panel of The Arts by Kenyon Cox. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.02238

Visitors to the newly opened Library of Congress building in 1897 (previously the Library had been housed in the U.S. Capitol) saw the Arts personified in five figures: Poetry at the center, with Architecture and Music to the left and Sculpture and Painting on the right. All bear an object identifying the art they represent, such as the miniature marble column held by Architecture and a painter’s palette by the figure of Painting.

Appropriately, this mural decorated a space devoted to the display of arts (and that continues to serve as an exhibition space today), drawn from the Department of Graphic Arts, the earliest predecessor to the Prints and Photographs Division, as seen in this early 1900s photo (note “The Arts” above the doors):

Exhibit area, second floor, southwest gallery, Library of Congress, looking towards mural called "The Arts". Photo by Levin C. Handy, circa 1900s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a37605

Exhibit area, second floor, southwest gallery, Library of Congress, looking towards mural called “The Arts”. Photo by Levin C. Handy, circa 1900s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a37605

This mural’s story started in 1894, when Superintendent of Construction Bernard R. Green offered Kenyon Cox $5,000 to decorate these two lunettes. Despite the fact that the commission would barely cover his costs, Cox took the job, as he was taken by the idea of creating art for a public building, where many would see and enjoy.

Over the course of the next few years, Cox developed these two large scale works. We can see parts of his process in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.

A full color scaled painting of the work at one inch to one foot shows the layout and figures in rough form:

The arts - decoration for the Library of Congress. Painting by Kenyon Cox, copyrighted 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.23143

The arts – decoration for the Library of Congress. Painting by Kenyon Cox, copyrighted 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.23143

This larger painting for the final work shows a more refined version, focused on line and form rather than color, and the gridlines are visible that will be used to scale it up to the final canvas size:

<em>The arts - decoration for the Library of Congress. </em>Painting by Kenyon Cox, circa 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b52930

The arts – decoration for the Library of Congress. Painting by Kenyon Cox, circa 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b52930

To get the figures from the first painting to the final, Cox sketched nude and drapery studies for each figure. The drapery studies, where Cox would work through the light and shadow of the fabric clothing for Music (left) and Architecture (right) are shown below, and the grid pattern used for scaling them is clearly visible here as well:

Drapery study for figure of Music, Library of Congress. Drawing by Kenyon Cox, circa 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.22760

Drapery study for figure of Music, Library of Congress. Drawing by Kenyon Cox, circa 1896.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.22760

Clothed study for female figure of Architecture, for mural. “The Arts” at the Library of Congress. Drawing by Kenyon Cox, circa 1896. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.23050

Cox did not paint his murals directly on the wall, as some artists did, but instead painted the canvases at his studio. He came to Washington, D.C. in May of 1896 to see the final works installed, and stayed to do some painting and adjustments to fit them within the space and the colors of the room. In a letter to his wife from his visit, Cox raves: “I’m very proud of them and delighted with them in decorative character, in line and in color. They look as if they had grown on the wall by a law of nature, they fit so perfectly.”

These women continue to oversee exhibitions and visitors to the Library of Congress, here seen above opening night of an exhibit devoted to women’s suffrage:

<em>Guests look through the "Shall Not Be Denied" exhibition on the opening night, </em>June 4, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. https://www.flickr.com/photos/library-of-congress-life/48079406641/in/album-72157709124022576/

Guests look through the “Shall Not Be Denied” exhibition on the opening night, June 4, 2019. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. https://www.flickr.com/photos/library-of-congress-life/48079406641/in/album-72157709124022576/

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