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:
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):
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:
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:
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:
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:
- The Library of Congress is celebrating its 220th birthday! Join in, and enjoy many exciting online offerings to mark the occasion.
- Explore the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building through the photos of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.
- Experience the work of Kenyon Cox in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- View a detailed reference guide to the art and architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building.