Washington is king of the Hill

Relations between Congress and the president aren’t always the best, but despite those times at odds, former presidents hold a special place in the halls of the Capitol: through the building’s artwork.

And no president is held in higher esteem, or represented more, than George Washington.

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As the first president and the city’s namesake, recreations of Washington are found in every corner of the Capitol.

Aside from these obvious reasons, our Founding Father also had a significant impact on construction of the structure itself.

Dr. Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Architect of the Capitol, notes that Washington was “closely associated with the Capitol from its conception, having helped select the location for the Capitol building” and approving its final design.

That dedication is shown through the more than two dozen works depicting the former president throughout the Capitol. The artwork runs the gamut in terms of styles, from murals and paintings to statues and busts. He is probably found the most in the Rotunda, alongside depictions of other presidents and famous events in American history. 

Meghan Conroy, an intern and tour guide, observed that the four paintings in the Rotunda by John Trumbull are among the most popular with visitors, two of which depict Washington.

One piece, “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis,” shows the leader during the end of the Revolutionary War, while “General George Washington Resigning His Commission” portrays him stepping down as commander in chief of the Continental Army. 

While the historical value of the second scene is of greatest importance (it was, after all, a landmark moment for democracy), Conroy said that one of the most interesting parts of the painting involves Trumbull’s supposed “laziness.” 

“If you look closely,” she says, “you can see that he painted Washington’s likeness onto most of the spectators in the room.” Other notable figures are also shown, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Martha Washington, though the latter two were not present at the real event.

Above the paintings lies what is perhaps the most famous representation of Washington in the Capital: “The Apotheosis of Washington,” on the ceiling of the Rotunda. Created in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi, an Italian immigrant, the mural shows Washington “rising to the heavens in glory.” 

While the nation’s first president is remembered as a humble, dedicated man, Brumidi hoped to convey through the mural his status as a national icon and father of future successes, as shown through the scenes of technological advances surrounding the leader.

As one moves to each chamber of Congress, one recreation of the former leader particularly stands out in the Old Senate Chamber. Found on the gallery level, the portrait of Washington completed by Rembrandt Peale in 1824 is the only piece of artwork in the room. While his likeness is not found in the Old House Chamber, numerous other leaders and presidents are seen in the room, which now serves as Statuary Hall.

While the current Senate Chamber contains no paintings, Washington holds a special place in the House. His full-length portrait hangs to the right of the Speaker’s chair and is one of the more dramatic versions of the president in the building. His sheathed sword represents his hope for a peaceful future for the young nation, a sentiment he often echoed in public speeches and letters alike. It serves as a companion piece to the portrait of Marquis de Lafayette that hangs to the left of the Speaker’s chair.

While Washington holds the prize as the president most frequently featured on Capitol Hill, Abraham Lincoln follows in a distant second. With the recent focus in film and pop culture on the nation’s 16th president, many visitors are particularly interested in seeing representations of the popular leader. 

Wolanin mentions that “most notably, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” and commemorations of the Civil War continue to peak tourist interest with the former president.

Perhaps the most prominent depiction of Lincoln comes in the form of a bust found in the Capitol Crypt. Gutzon Borglum, the same artist who created Mount Rushmore, designed the piece in 1908. 

The sculpture stands out not only because Lincoln is the only president featured in the room but also because of its massive size: Clocking in at 375 pounds, it is the largest sculpture in the Crypt as well as the only work that doesn’t show the full body. 

Lincoln’s son, Robert, believed the bust to be “the most extraordinarily good portrait of my father I have ever seen,” noting its accuracy and acute details.

Another prominent recreation is the statue of Lincoln in the Rotunda, where it is flanked by two of Trumbull’s paintings. It depicts the president holding the Emancipation Proclamation and was sculpted by Vinnie Ream, the first woman ever to receive a government commission for art.

Despite Lincoln and Washington’s prominence, more than half of our nation’s presidents are also featured in artwork across the Capitol. Many of these are statues located in the Rotunda and Statuary Hall, including Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan and Andrew Jackson. Their ranks will almost certainly grow as the Capitol continues to pay artful homage to the people who founded, and led, the country.