When most Americans think of grand naval victories, few would likely list a battle fought on one of the nation’s Great Lakes. And yet that is the scene of one of the Capitol’s loveliest paintings, depicting a critical clash during the War of 1812.
Commissioned by Congress in 1865 — during another tumultuous period, that of the Civil War — artist William Henry Powell was asked to depict a decisive American naval victory.
The artist had recently completed a work depicting Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie for the rotunda of the Ohio statehouse in Columbus. When Congress commissioned the artist to complete a large painting to be hung at the head of the east stairway in the Capitol’s Senate wing, it was likely understood that he would recreate the subject on a grander scale.
Powell “was an American artist — that was something they were looking for to fill the halls of Congress,” Smith said. “He was obviously competent; he was a known factor and a competent artist who could create a competent scene.”
Powell worked in a temporary studio inside the Capitol, and is said to have used Capitol employees as models for the work. Measuring more than 26 feet by 16 feet, the large painting depicts a turning point in the war against the mighty British naval fleet, when U.S. forces took control of the Northwest Territory.
As his subject, the artist chose the moment when Perry escaped his damaged ship, the Lawrence, in a rowboat through enemy fire. Accompanying him are six oarsmen, a helmsman and the commodore’s young brother, Alexander.
A haze of gun smoke surrounds them as Perry’s boat rows toward the ship Niagara. The yellow smoke shrouds the British and American ships behind Perry, giving them an almost spectral quality that enhances the perceived dangers in the painting.
Doomed figures look down from the crippled Lawrence, and a lifeless figure in the foreground bobs helplessly in the gray water, a symbol of the brutality of war. An American flag tethered to the rowboat ripples in the wind, its red stripes the one bright burst of color in the otherwise muted image.
According to historical accounts, Perry braved the heavy gunfire to reach the Niagara successfully. There, he boarded the ship, took command, then steered it directly toward the British ships. Just 15 minutes after boarding the Niagara, the British ships had fallen under the assault.
“We have met the enemy and they are ours — two ships, two brigs, one schooner and a sloop,” Perry wrote to Gen. William Henry Harrison, commander of U.S. forces in the Northwest Territory, following the victory.
Perry’s victory at Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813, was considered one of the most heroic military events of the young American republic. Perry not only defeated the British naval forces, at that point considered the greatest on earth, but also ensured American control of the Great Lakes.
Within a month, the British and their Indian allies were all but defeated.
Powell’s capturing of such a victorious moment in American history doesn’t just inspire countless lawmakers and Capitol visitors lucky enough to glimpse it today. The work was also meant to inspire those in Congress a century and a half before, during the dark days of the bloody Civil War.
“I’m sure in the debate about commissioning the work and the subject itself, the decisive victory that it depicts, it was probably hoped that it would be inspiring for a nation that was currently at war,” Smith said.