Tales of Capitol Art: New feature focuses on stories behind works

Tales of Capitol Art: New feature focuses on stories behind works

We’ve all been told a time or two to stop and smell the roses. With Tales of Capitol Art, a new feature The Hill is introducing, we’re hoping to help readers who traverse the Capitol Complex every day to look up from their briefing papers or turn off their cell phones every once in a while and take in the art around them.

The Capitol’s art collection is sizable: The House alone has approximately 300 paintings, 400 historic prints and two dozen pieces of sculpture — not to mention its many antique chairs, desks, inkstands and other furnishings. There are 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection. And among the Senate’s body of art is a collection of vice presidential busts and more than 70 paintings by some of America’s most celebrated artists.

Farar Elliott, the House curator and chief of the Office of History and Preservation, said the Capitol’s art can offer perspective to the people who work among it.

“Members and staffers interact with the art in a way that is very visceral, because for the most part, the art is representing other people who have been in their shoes, or it represents some of the issues and ideals that undergird a representative democracy,” she said. “[The art] really serves, I think, as an inspiration and a reminder that, in an institution that is very much about the present moment, there is a long institutional history.”

Elliott pointed out something else that’s special about the art on Capitol Hill.

Whether it’s a statue that makes up the background of a photo with congressional leaders and visiting dignitaries or an antique gavel that brings the House to session every day, the various pieces of art are integral parts of the legislative body’s functioning, she said.

“They’re witnesses to history,” Elliott said.

As for our take on this art, we’re by no means art historians, so don’t expect in-depth analyses of a baroque painter’s brushstrokes. Do expect to read about the people in Capitol art and how the art interacts with the congressional community. To that end, feel free to e-mail me at kkitto@thehill.com if you’d like to see us profile a piece of Capitol art you want to know more about.

Kris Kitto

Helen Keller: An inspiration

Among the statuesque forms of the country’s forefathers, the figure of a young girl now has a home in the Capitol.

A highly detailed, burnished copper statue of Helen Keller joined the ranks of Capitol art last Wednesday, first unveiled in the Rotunda before moving to a permanent residence in the Capitol Visitor Center.

As the first stand-alone statue of a child in the Capitol, the sculpture captures Keller as a 7-year-old learning to speak. Young Keller’s hand is outstretched beneath a water pump, symbolic of the day her teacher, Anne Sullivan, dribbled water on her hand and taught her to say “water” — the first word she ever uttered.

Wrapped around the pump are branches of ivy, an intricate tribute to Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green. Other delicate details range from the thick bow that secures Keller’s loosely pinned hair to the hint of pantaloons creeping out from under her dress.

The figure rests on a sturdy square base, lined on three sides with famous Keller quotes and facts engraved in English and Braille.
One tells of her remarkable feats — graduating from Radcliffe with honors in 1904, for instance — another of her loyalty to Sullivan.

Tourists on Wednesday welcomed the addition of a child — and another woman — to the male-dominated array of statues in the Capitol.
Zachery Ehrenfelu, a young tourist from New York, said the statue of Keller reminds people that the ability to effect change is not reserved for adults.

“You see, she’s a 7-year-old girl and she already knows what she’s doing,” Ehrenfelu said. “You can save people when you’re young, not just when you’re old.”

For Jay Campbell, a 14-year-old from Georgia who is deaf and speaking-impaired, the statue hit an even more personal chord.

“Is it nice to see someone the same as you?” his father, David, signed to him.

In response, Jay turned back to the statue, beaming as he ran his fingers along the Braille that proclaimed Keller, in 1904, “the most well-educated deaf-blind mute.”

Jay’s 16-year-old sister, Hannah, was among the onlookers remarking on the statue’s aesthetics.

“I think it’s a really beautiful statue,” Hannah said. “As a child, and as a woman, maybe it will bring more statues like her here.”

But almost in contradiction, the striking statue reminds onlookers, in Keller’s own words, of the limitations of visual beauty.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched,” the statue reads. “They must be felt with the heart.”

Katy Hopkins
Dalip Saund’s new home

Lawmakers and aides charging to the House floor for votes may not notice that on the once-blank walls of the east staircase now hang portraits of two pioneer members of the House of Representatives (see below for the second).

During the August recess, Capitol curators moved the portrait of Dalip S. Saund, the first Asian American to serve in Congress, to one of the more heavily trafficked staircases in the Capitol. Saund, a Democrat, served in Congress from 1957 to 1963 and remains to this day the only Sikh federal lawmaker.

Last Wednesday afternoon between votes, several staffers raced up and down those stairs, as did Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Sandy Levin (D-Mich.).

Most people were too focused on their bosses, BlackBerrys or armloads of accordion folders to look up at the art, but Thompson, descending the stairs with an aide, stopped for a moment to take in Saund’s portrait.

He said he hadn’t taken the time to look at the portrait before but had noticed after returning from the August recess that new art was hung in the space.

Saund’s portrait might grab others’ attention because it’s unique. The pose is a familiar one: Saund, in a gray suit and red tie, leans against an ivory-colored railing on what looks like the Cannon House Office Building’s rotunda balcony. He has a closed-mouth half-smile, and his arms are tucked behind his back.

But down the right side of the roughly four-foot portrait runs a green strip that contains more than 18 symbols summarizing his life story. Among them are: the outline of India, where he was born; the shape of California, the state he settled in and represented; and a tractor, to show his background as a farmer.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) spoke at the portrait’s 2007 unveiling.

“It was nice to see his face — I never knew what he looked like,” Honda said Monday. “I’ve spoken of him many times because of issues around immigration and anti-immigrant laws, and just the fact that he was the first Asian American [gives the portrait significance].”

Honda said the portrait reminds him of the inspiration he has found in Saund for his breaking of barriers and trailblazing for other Asian American lawmakers.

On the bottom of the portrait, in big, block letters, reads this quote from Saund: “There is no room in the United States of America for second-class citizenship.”

Kris Kitto

A woman of firsts

Florence Prag Kahn’s portrait hangs across the split staircase from Saund’s. In the painting, Kahn, also a California lawmaker, stands in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, dark waters and a yellow-orange sunset in the background. Wearing a funereal black dress, she has a stoic look on her face.

Kahn was a woman who achieved many firsts. She replaced her husband, Julius, as the district’s representative after he died while in office. She then became not only the first woman on the Military Affairs and Appropriations committees, but also the first Jewish woman in Congress. She was a Republican who served from 1925 to 1937.

First to her, though, was her San Francisco district (the same district Nancy Pelosi, D, the first female Speaker, now represents).

“A lot of what she did was really to use her skills to bring home the bacon for San Francisco,” Elliott said.
Because of her allegiance to her district, Elliott said the portrait’s commissioners decided it most appropriate to have the painting’s setting be San Francisco Bay. In the portrait, an aircraft carrier represents the work she did for the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif.

As for her appearance, Elliott said Kahn was not known for her fashion sense.

“She eschewed all that glamour,” she said.

The portrait, commissioned in 2007, was revealed in May. At the unveiling, Pelosi remarked that, as a young mother in San Francisco, she spent much of her time in the park named after Kahn’s husband.

Kris Kitto