This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
One day, a boy was working in a blacksmith's shop near Kingston, New York. Up rode a horseman whose horse had cast a shoe. His attention was caught by a rough charcoal sketch upon a neighboring barn door. " Who drew that ? " asked the horseman. " I did it," said the lad. " Put a clean shirt in your pocket, come to New York, and call upon me," said the stranger. Some weeks later, the gentleman was breakfasting at his home, " Richmond Hill." A parcel was handed him. It contained a coarse shirt, and attached to it was his address in his own handwriting. He welcomed the blacksmith's apprentice into his family, and helped him to an education in the arts. Some years later, the horseman was an exile in France—" a man without a country." The lad was famous. He did not forget his benefactor. The horseman was Aaron Burr ; the lad, John Vanderlyn.
The full-length painting of Washington to the left of the Speaker's chair is by this artist. The tradition is that, when the picture of Lafayette was presented to the government and placed on one side of the Speaker's chair in the old hall, the necessity for one upon the opposite side to balance it was apparent. Vanderlyn was accordingly commissioned to paint a picture of Washington as a companion-piece; and he painted this, with slight alterations, from the painting by Gilbert Stuart, his former master, on the walls of the White House. The likelihood of this story seems to be borne out by a careful comparison of the present painting with that on the walls of the Executive Mansion.
The corresponding picture to the right of the Speaker is of Lafayette, from the brush of Ary SchefTer, the great Dutch painter, who was a personal friend and political supporter of the Frenchman. It was executed at the order of Lafayette himself, who brought it to this country in 1824, upon his second visit to the United States, and presented it to Congress.
The California landscape upon the extreme left is by Albert Bierstadt. Many think it represents what might be styled the natal day of the Upper California mission. In 1601, Viscaino, the explorer, visited that coast. " We have already observed," writes Torquemada, " that on the 16th of December the squadron put into this port which was called Monte-rey, in honour of the count de Monte-rey, viceroy of New Spain; by whom they had been sent on this discovery, pursuant to his Majesty's orders. The next day the general directed preparations to be made, that the fathers Andrew de la Assumpcion and Antonio de la Ascencion, might say mass during their stay there. The church was erected under a large oak close to the sea side, and within twenty paces of it were some wells affording plenty of excellent water." Others, however, ably contend that Bierstadt intended here to celebrate with his brush the spot where Spanish tradition says Junipero Serra, the " Father of California," surrounded by his disciples, first said mass at Monterey in 1769, under an oak on the shores of the beautiful bay. If we were to ask the artist himself as to his meaning, he would, no doubt, evade the question, as the poet Browning cleverly evaded a similar inquiry: " Ask the Browning Societies. They know." The artist demanded $40,000 apiece for two paintings for the Hall of Representatives. He received #10,000 each for this and the one on the right of the Speaker's chair.
The painting to the right, purchased in 1875, has for its theme the Discovery of the Hudson by Hendrik Hudson, an Englishman then in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. Bierstadt is an intellectual rather than an emotional painter. There is little play of fancy in his work. In his landscapes he follows the Diisseldorf school. " Having received a Government Commission," writes Tuckerman, " Bierstadt sailed for Europe, in June, 1867, to make some studies for a picture of the discovery of the North River by Henry Hudson,—a subject admirably adapted to his pencil, and to national historical landscape. It was because of his conviction that the patient and faithful study of Nature is the only adequate school of landscape art that Bierstadt, like Cole and Church, fixed his abode on the banks of the Hudson. His spacious studio, but recently erected, commands a beautiful and extensive view of the noble river, in the immediate vicinity of the Tap-pan Zee and the Palisades. Wandering through the fields there, one summer day, we looked back from the brow of a hill upon one of those magnificent yet unusual sunsets, no where beheld so often as on this Western continent; a friend at our side remarked : * If it were possible to transfer these brilliant hues and this wonderful cloud-picture to canvas—how few would regard the work as a genuine reflex of a sublime natural effect!' Just at that moment, in turning the angle of an orchard, we came in sight of Bierstadt, seated on a camp-stool, rapidly and with skilful eagerness depicting the marvelous sunset, as a study for future use; and the incident was but another evidence of the wisdom and fidelity of his method in seeking both his subjects and inspiration directly from Nature".
The picture on the extreme right represents a scene at the headquarters of Washington at Yorktown on October 17, 1781. The American general is represented standing, in the act of receiving a letter which has come through the lines under a flag of truce. Lord Cornwallis sues for cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours that commissioners may be appointed to settle upon terms of surrender. Washington, however, seeing in this a mere subterfuge to await the arrival of a fleet expected at any moment with reinforcements from New York commanded by Sir James Clinton, grants Cornwallis but two hours, stipulating that, at the end of that time, he must transmit definite proposals in writing. Thus baffled in his designs, the British commander complied with Washington's demands. The final surrender took place on the 19th ; and not until that day did Clinton sail from New York. When, on the 24th, he arrived and learned of the surrender, he returned immediately to the north.
This work is in fresco. The painter, piqued at the bitter attacks made upon the foreign artists, contrary to his usual custom, for he did not often sign his work, wrote boldly in the right-hand lower corner, " C. Brumidi, Artist, Citizen of the U. S.," as if to emphasize his citizenship and patriotism. The painting thus signed is one of those least worthy of his name.