Post #589 • July 26, 2005, 1:30 PM • 5 Comments
Here's a cool little story: Restoring Reputation of 'Artist-Citizen of the U.S.', by Sheryl Gay Stolberg for the New York Times.
In a forlorn cemetery a few miles north of the Capitol, a small band of art lovers, history buffs and descendants of Italian immigrants gathered Sunday afternoon around a simple grave. Under the shade of a giant oak tree, they made speeches and laid floral wreaths, paying homage to a man whose paintings have been seen by millions but whose name is known to only a few.
"Let's face the facts," the ceremony's organizer, Joseph Grano, told the celebrants. "Brumidi is not widely known for his achievements. I don't expect one person in 1,000 recognizes his name."
Brumidi, for the other 999, is Constantino Brumidi, the Italian-born fresco artist whose ornate Renaissance- and Pompeian-style murals decorate much of the United States Capitol. Brumidi spent 25 years, from 1854 to 1879, laboring inside America's great symbol of democracy. His pink-cheeked cherubs and classical Greek and Roman figures, woven around distinctly American themes, were intended to uplift and inspire all who walked through the building or worked there.
Grano presides over the Constantino Brumidi Society, and noted:
I like the story that he's an immigrant, that he was allowed to paint in the most important building in the United States.
Me too. Calling him the "Michelangelo of the Capitol," as the society does, is overly generous; it would be more accurate to call him a Michelangelo with a heavy payload of Gilbert Stuart slowing him down. But his work is charming. Michelangelo's sculptural manner of handling painted forms comes through Brumidi's work - you don't see any similar influences from, say, the Tiepolo family, who lived much closer to his time. I plan to go by the Capitol one day to see the it. Alas, his story ends sadly.
Yet Brumidi was ignored, the victim of ethnocentrism and snobbery. Though he became a citizen in 1857 (he signed a fresco "C. Brumidi Artist-Citizen of the U.S."), American-born artists cast him as a foreigner and resented his painting Capitol murals. In a few decades, with the rise of modernism, critics would look down their noses at Brumidi's brand of representational art.
When he died, penniless and alone, in 1880, there wasn't even enough money to bury him; his ex-wife agreed to have him interred in her family plot, and the grave went without a marker until 1951.
"He was reviled in what passed as art literature, in the history books," Dr. [Francis V.] O'Connor said, "with the result that everyone thought the Capitol was filled with bad art."
You see, this was all before these enlightened days of pluralism, when traditional and progressive styles are embraced as one, taken as equals, presented together, and celebrated with the same brimming devotion by our institutions and the market. Ahhh. You keep reading; I must go top off the bowl of my crack pipe.
"Every single inch is a discovery," [conservator Christiana Cunningham-Adams] said. "A new color, a new detail. We uncovered feathers on birds that you could see, or little tiny insects on leaves that had been painted over. I think the importance of the recovery is bringing back people's understanding of the very high quality of this incredible artistic treasure."
I think this serves as a nice foil to the America In The Toilet image from yesterday. Here's the America we believe in - the great Washington, Liberty at one hand, Truth at the other, painted by an Italian scofflaw seeking a better life, chosen because he was the best guy in town for the job.