A New York state of mind

Those taking in the Capitol’s New York Harbor mural might be inclined to reach out and touch it. They’d be surprised, however, to find that they’re not feeling a stone carving, but an oil-on-canvas painting.

Sitting above an elevator in a first-floor House-side hallway known as the Cox Corridor, the New York Harbor mural shows a bird’s-eye view of early New York City. The perspective begins at the back of the Statue of Liberty, showing her uplifted torch and looking out on Manhattan’s harbor and skyline. The harbor is busy, full of ships heading into ports, and the skyline boasts tall buildings and large docks. 

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The mural’s optical illusion is the result of a style of art known as trompe l’oeil, seen throughout the Cox Corridor. Originating from the Baroque period, trompe l’oeil is French for “fool the eye.” In this style, the artist paints objects to look three-dimensional. For instance, an observer gazing down the Cox Corridor could mistake small, painted details for stone etchings.

The New York mural is as interesting as its location. The Cox Corridors, decorated more than a hundred years after the Brumidi Corridors on the Senate side, were meant to bring beauty and recognition to the Capitol’s House side. 

“Historically, the Senate has had more sophisticated and extravagant decoration,” Architect of the Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin said. In response, she said, American mural artist Allyn Cox came up with “a beautiful design for the House corridor.”

It took the vision of one artist and the skill of many to complete this colorful corridor, whose murals illustrate the country’s history. Aides and visitors walking down the hallway are engulfed in a vibrant tunnel of scenes that tell the tales of the early Americans who laid the foundation for this country. 

The western end, the last to be completed, tells the story of westward expansion. It begins with the Vikings’ voyage to North America and includes Christopher Columbus’s landfall before ending with the New York Harbor mural, an image that symbolizes the start of the melting pot the U.S. was to become.

Directly above the mural is a tribute to Cox, whose art also appears in other parts of the Capitol. His portrait is placed as the final piece in the hallway, and it’s bordered by gray vines and painted in the same trompe l’oeil style, making it look like a bust. 

In 1971, Congress authorized the decoration of the House-side corridors, and Cox planned the art for all three hallways. He died before he could see his entire vision completed, but Jeffrey Greene followed Cox’s vision and original sketches to finish the final corridor in 1994.

Wolanin approved sketches and worked closely with the artists to help make the vision a reality.

Murals of this magnitude, especially the New York Harbor mural, take great time and consideration to complete. They must first be drawn on paper, which in this case was done by Cox. They are then sketched out on the canvas and filled in slowly, layer upon layer.

“This mural is meant to show the end of westward expansion,” Wolanin said. “And for many, New York City was the perfect example of what it meant to start living the American Dream.”