Lincoln, Garfield mosaics blend in, stand out

The Capitol’s halls are lined with portraits of past presidents, House Speakers and history-making lawmakers, which is why it would be easy to miss two standout works of art tucked into a quiet corridor off the Senate floor. 

On one wall hangs a standard-looking portrait of the country’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, with his signature beard, black coat and tie and stoic visage. Facing him is a profile of James Garfield, the 20th president, in similar dress and expression.

That these two portraits blend in so well with the others surrounding them is part of their accomplishment. They aren’t paintings, but mosaics, compilations of pieces of broken glass, tile and other materials that come together to make a coherent image.

Italian artist Antonio Salviati was so successful in blending his media that both portraits look like paintings from just a few feet away. But up close, an observer can discern intricate patterns of small squares that make up the subjects’ facial features, the shades of color in their dress, and the waves in their hair.

Salviati set both portraits in round frames, creating an almost halo-like track of tiles in concentric circles around each president. The flattering form reflects Salviati’s regard for both men; according to the Senate’s Catalogue of Fine Art, Salviati thought of Lincoln as “one of the world’s greatest heroes.”

Salviati used such small tiles of various color that he was able to depict the different tones of Lincoln’s skin around his beard line and the tinges of grey in his thick, black hair. The artist even captured the glint in the statesman’s eyes with a white dot set in his pupils. In Garfield’s portrait, small tiles running counter to the larger pattern stand out to illustrate the white wisps in his ruddy beard and hair.

Associate Senate Curator Melinda Smith said these unique works of art require different care than other pieces in the Capitol art collection.

“Our mosaic portraits are very hardy,” she said, explaining that they are much less susceptible to humidity, dirt and other environmental factors than the collection’s oil paintings. “However, because they are made of tile, they are heavier than most of our other portraits, and our primary interest is in making sure that they are hung with sturdy wire and anchor bolts. We’ve never had any issues with their exhibition.”

Throughout their time in the Capitol, the portraits have traditionally been displayed together, Smith said. Before being placed just outside the Senate floor, they hung on the Capitol’s third floor.

“The current location for the portraits was selected so that they could hang together and be enjoyed for their unique craftsmanship,” she said.

Smith said the two pieces of art are “outliers” not only because of their unique medium but also because their subjects are presidents, whereas most of the art that hangs near the Senate floor features senators. In the 1990s a private citizen alerted the Senate Curator’s Office to a third Salviati mosaic of a U.S. president, this one of George Washington, but it doesn’t belong to the Capitol’s art collection, and its whereabouts are unknown.

Salviati founded a business in 1859 that was dedicated to restoring the art of the mosaic, according to the Catalogue of Fine Art, and had offices in both Venice and London. He exhibited his work around the world and was celebrated as a master of mosaic. He also decorated a church on the Stanford University campus with mosaics, but they were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Congress received Salviati’s Lincoln mosaic in 1866 and his Garfield portrait in 1883. 

Smith said one of the reasons Salviati’s two pieces of art stand out in the Senate is because mosaics are more often incorporated into architecture, whereas these two are stand-alone works. She noted that Salviati tried to make mosaics more accessible, because they were traditionally known to be lavish and expensive.

“An artist does himself a favor when he creates something unique,” she said.