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The Library Of Congress, And Its Mural Decorations

( Originally Published 1920 )


ONE of the most beautiful buildings in the United States is that which houses its National Congressional library. It is one of the sights of the Capital, and deserves repeated visits, both to enjoy its loveliness and to become familiar with the treasures of art which it contains. The foremost American painters have contributed to its decoration, and its walls glow with warm and beautiful coloring. It bears the same relation to our own country that the British Museum does to England, for in it are gathered the written memorials of American intellectual progress, in addition to the scientific contributions of other nations, gathered here by the Smithsonian Institution and other societies.

But it is for its artistic charm that the casual visitor loves it most, and it is worth while to point out some of the notable decorations in. order to simplify the task of the reader who may some time wish to see much in a short time, or to recall what has once been seen.

The building was completed in 1897, and the problem of decoration was exquisitely handled. Nearly fifty painters and sculptors were commissioned by the Government to decorate its walls, and thereby was se-cured a permanent record of American art. Great bronze doors, with beautiful reliefs, open into the building. Above the door is a representation of Tradition, the source of all intellectual progress, and on the doors themselves are panels representing Memory and Imagination, all the work of Olin L. Warner. Another door shows a symbolic figure of Writing; and there is a door by Macmonnies, in which Minerva is shown spreading knowledge through printing, and in addition, de-signs representing Intellect and The Humanities.

Among the first of the mural decorations which the visitor notices are the paintings of Charles Sprague Pearce; first a large picture representing The Family, and accompanied by smaller studies with the various titles, Religion, Labor, Study, Recreation, and Rest. All these are simple, pastoral scenes, and figures of men and maidens in the normal pursuits of daily life. In harmony with this conception of intimate family life, the names of distinguished educators are inscribed in suitable spaces near the pictures.

Corresponding to these in the general positions which they occupy are the pictures by H. O. Walker, to which is given the general title of Lyric Poetry. It is a delicately conceived group, in which Poetry appears as a beautiful woman, attended by the passions which most frequently offer her inspiration. In the smaller pictures various notable English and American poets are represented by mythological figures which bear some special kinship to the poet imagined,-either because he has been the author of a poem fitly linking his name with that of his hero, as in the choice of Endymion to celebrate Keats, or for some like reason. In this way are conceived Tennyson, Keats, Wordsworth, Emerson, Milton, and Shakespeare.

John W. Alexander was the painter whose works were planned to fill another corridor. The subject chosen was "The Evolution of the Book." In elaborating it, there were created six studies, The Cairn, Oral Tradition, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Picture Writing, The Manuscript Book, and The Printing Press. In keeping with the subject, the treatment is austerely simple, dignified and restrained in the last degree,-a marked contrast to the light-heartedness of the lyric groups.

There are five paintings by Elihu Vedder which are all concerned with various representations of the idea of Government, conceived in its various phases. There is an idealized study of the general theme, followed by pictures dealing with other aspects of the function of the state,-Corrupt Legislation, Anarchy, and Good Administration, and Peace and Prosperity.

The wealth of decoration here indicated occurs all of it on the lower floor. Upstairs it is continued on the same scale. To Walter Shirlaw was given the task of decorating eight small spaces, and into these he has set figures representing the sciences on the understanding of which all material progress rests. They are Zoology, Physics, Mathematics, and Geology; Archaeology, Botany, Astronomy, and Chemistry. For each of these a single figure stands as the symbol, accompanied by the natural objects indicative of her function.

Here also are the paintings of Robert Reid to illustrate the Five Senses of man. These occupy spaces in the ceiling. On the walls are panels which deal with Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding, and Philosophy.

Two series of paintings represent the various forms of literature and the life of man, respectively. In the first there are female figures representing Tragedy, Comedy, History, and Lyric Poetry, and Love Poetry, Tradition, Fancy, and Romance. In the second series are shown successively, infancy, maturity, and old age. These are by William A. Mackay, as the others were by George R. Barse.

F. W. Benson was chosen to provide the decoration for a corresponding space in another corridor, which has been filled by three paintings of The Three Graces of ancient legend. In addition there are four studies of The Seasons, by the same artist. In like fashion, there are two pictures by W. B. Van Ingen, typifying L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, with appropriate quotations from Milton beneath them.

The great dome of the library was decorated by E. H. Blashfield. It is surrounded by a series of paintings which in their theme portray the progress of civilization, under the guidance of the human intellect. To show this, twelve figures have been designed, each one of which represents some great civilization of the world, exemplified by the appropriate country.

Kenyon Cox was the artist who contributed two large paintings, the one rendering the conception of the Arts, and the other of the Sciences. In each of these, classical figures were arranged in a harmonious grouping, bearing the appropriate symbols of their significance. A space corresponding to this has been filled by two pictures by Gari Melchers, the one showing Peace, the other War.

At the four corners of the main dome there are smaller rooms which present special decoration of their own. That which has been decorated by George W. Maynard deals with the discoverers, represented in a huge painting which covers the ceiling, and in groups on the walls. Another, with pictures by R. L. Dodge, shows the four natural elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Still another, by W. de L. Dodge, deals with art and science; and the last represents the seals of the nation, artistically arranged by Van Ingen.

Another series of pictures remains to be mentioned,-that of Walter McEwen, in which the various heroes of Greek mythology are shown one after another in a long succession,-Paris and Jason, Bellerophon and Orpheus, Perseus and Prometheus, Achilles and Hercules. The paintings of Edward Simmons, depicting the Nine Muses, occupy a similar space elsewhere, and provide an excellent decoration.

Among so many and so diverse types of painting, it is impossible to do justice to all, and it is possible only for a single person to note individual preferences. These will vary with the taste and the training of the individual. Yet certain paintings are notable, not merely for the dignity and acceptability with which they serve the purpose for which they were designed, but for the energy or flexibility which they display in the handling of their respective themes. It is fitting that some of these receive more detailed mention than the foregoing.

One of the most impressive series is the group of paintings by John W. Alexander, for this reason. The development of the written record of human life is a theme of profound significance in itself; and in the several stages which were chosen to represent it the artist showed his skill and his appreciation of fundamental values in pictorial representation. The earliest means of communication is shown, the cairn, or small heap of stones left by travellers to show all later-comers that others have trod that way before them,-a strong, primitive bit of symbolism. The next step in the progress of the race occurred with the development of memory, and the oral tradition which grew up with it, in which the tale was told from one generation to the next and the history and ambitions of a people kept alive from father to son. When one remembers the part that such verbal records have played in the development of civilization, one realizes the significance of the picture as conceived by Alexander. The study called Egyptian Hieroglyphics shows yet another phase of development,-the first inscriptions in which a definite written record is established. Picture Writing shows yet an-other method among primitive or half-savage peoples, and carries man yet a step forward toward full written communication. The transition from this to the book painfully copied out in the crabbed monkish script of the Middle Ages marks a great advance, but the crowning triumph of all comes in the production of the first printed book, in which are set forth, clearly and legible for all who wish to see, the in-formation which the writer wished to convey.

There is something majestic in this procession of ideas, set forth as they are in pictures whose simplicity and austerity marks them with character and dignity worthily accompanying the record they illustrate. There is an absence of brilliant coloring, a quietness of tone. which adds largely to their effect.

The studies of Walker on the theme of Lyric Poetry also deserve special note. They are entirely different in character from those we have just considered, as their subject necessarily requires them to be. Here is no place for a stern, self-contained art; and in harmony with the material, the pictures show a lightness and delicacy of treatment, a lyric joyousness in handling, which gives them a different harmony.

The main picture shows the Muse of Lyric Poetry, a woman clothed in floating draperies of deep rose, and bearing in her arms the lyre, to the strains of which she tunes her song. Beside her stand the emotions, -the eager, imploring figure of Passion, loosely girt with a scarf of golden hue, placid Beauty, and the merry figure of the boy Mirth. Pathos, a female figure, lifts sad eyes to the sky, while Truth stands proudly by, naked and unashamed. Devotion crouches near. The setting for these figures is a wooded glade, through which a brook rushes swiftly murmuring.

In this picture the coloring is delicate and soft, yet warm and living as befits the subject. There is an ideal quality about the whole, a remoteness from actuality, that lifts it beyond the region of mere symbolic representation and gives it a life and vitality of its own. The same skill and harmonious taste has governed the artist in his choice of forms under which to symbolize the work of the great poets of his selection. Tennyson is represented by Ganymede, the cup-bearer of the gods, who was stolen away from earth by Jove himself, hidden in his eagle's dress, to serve nectar and ambrosia on Olympus. The reference is to a passage in "The Palace of Art."

To suggest Keats, the figure of Endymion was a happy selection, for the hero of Keats' greatest poem has been credited with many of the same characteristics with which we have endowed his creator. Wordsworth is symbolized in the figure called "The Boy of Winander," which derives its inspiration from a poem describing a solitary child-hood, in which the company of woods and hillsides, mountain streams and nights of stars, brought about reflection and inner peace. For Emerson the symbolic figure is conceived after the manner suggested by Emerson's poem of "Uriel," the winged angel who sits apart from his fellows, alone upon a rocky cliff, high above the world. Equally happy is the form of Adonis, beloved of the goddess Venus, to represent Shakespeare, one of whose greatest lyrics is the poem of "Venus and Adonis." For Milton, a passage from "Comus" is illustrated.

In these paintings especially is shown the vast adaptability of allegorical painting. All the range of emotion, from the realities of the pictures of John Alexander to the idealisms of Walker, is expressed in visible form, and plain to the humblest vision. It is possible to turn from regions of pure fantasy to regions of primitive fact, and yet perceive no disharmony; for in each subject the manner is delicately adjusted to the material. To do this is the test of all art.

Some mention ought also to be made of the mosaic pictures which adorn certain walls of the library. The art of mosaic decoration is an exceedingly old one, which is found in great perfection in the ruins of ancient cities, notably in Pompeii, from the architectural style of which the building adopted certain decorative features. As everybody knows, the art of mosaic-building is an art of representing the picture of the artist's conception by means of small colored stones, closely set together to form the design,-achieving in stone somewhat the same effect that is seen in stained glass whitlows. The design must be drawn in line, and colored as it is to be when finished, and on this as a foundation the separate parts are strongly fastened, face down, so that the finished work cannot be seen until the design is removed. Then it is polished as much as the type of work requires for its full effect.

The commonest use of mosaic work is in pure deeoration,-simple natural or geometric forms applied to walls, ceilings or floors, to give color and warmth and a pleasing harmony of design. The mosaic work in the library is in general of this kind, covering the ceilings which are not otherwise decorated. But there is one place in which the mosaic is used as the medium for a more elaborate decoration. This is in the figure of Minerva by Elihu Vedder.

According to the old mythology, Minerva was the goddess both of War and of Wisdom. She was said to have sprung full-armed from the head of Jove, and to her was given the famous aegis-shield, bearing the deadly countenance of Medusa in its center. In this picture, how-ever, she is shown as the guardian of peace and the patron of civilization. Her shield is laid aside, and her helmet doffed, while she holds a scroll containing, as is proper, the names of the sciences by which human progress is won. Near her is placed a small image of Victory, standing with outstretched arms bearing a wreath of laurel and a leaf of palm. The goddess leans upon her spear, in peaceful contemplation of prosperity. The whole picture is full of good hope and promise for the future. It is surrounded by a conventionalized border of laurel, whose leaves and branches form a delicate tracery about the central figure. The picture glows with color, and is filled with the full light of the sun, shining out to confirm the promise of the goddess' favor.

These are some of the most significant of the decorations in the library. It is not enough to spend a brief fifteen minutes or so among them, as the casual visitor is invited to do when the sight-seeing car finally lands him there, after allowing half or three-quarters of an hour for the contemplation of the animals at the Zoo ; and one whose time for the sights of the city is limited would do well to .plan for this independently of other expeditions, for there is material to occupy hours and days if one can spare the time. More than this, it is an artistic education of the most complete sort.

In a beautiful building like this, all that is best in the artistic consciousness of a nation may, if it is permitted, find expression. Somebody has called architecture "frozen music"; and if this be true, we may well widen the term by likening the pictures within its walls to histories, poems, philosophies in line and color. To do this has been the aim of those who planned the decoration, and under whose direction the artists were given their commission to paint what they imagined to be the bodily form of ideals such as should animate a great and new nation.

It is a great achievement to possess a record of the best that American art has produced such as this. The work of the library was all done by American sculptors and painters, with the intention of perpetuating such a record. More than anything else, it shows the quality for which we, as a nation, pride ourselves most,-our spirit of fear-less idealism, our pacific and generous breadth of vision, and our golden opportunity as the heir to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. To that, more than to anything else, the artists have paid their tribute. The evolution of family life, the continuous progress in art and science, the steady development of the spirit of discovery and exploration, have all opened to the nations of the Western hemisphere a future which may, in the providence of God, escape in part the dangers of older civilizations.

It is in this that these paintings should inspire us with a sense of the great responsibility which is ours,-a responsibility which is only in-creased by the varied inheritance which is ours,-an inheritance so penetratingly suggested in the Blashfield pictures that encircle the central dome, of the twelve nationalities and civilizations that have contributed most distinctively to our growth. There is everything in the pictures here gathered together under one roof to stimulate every patriotic visitor to renewed pride in his country.

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