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.
The walls of the rotunda, or interior of the dome, are divided into twelve panels by lofty classic pilasters or Grecian antae. Isthmian wreaths ornament the entablature thus supported. The upper section of the interior, which is rendered effective in finish by innumerable caissons or sunken panels, is crowned by a bowl-shaped roof or canopy. Beneath this frescoed ceiling runs a circular landing, from which, as well as from the winding stairs where they pass in the ascension the belt of windows which circle the dome above the frieze and give it light, it is possible to look down upon the rotunda. Across the space, though measuring 65 feet, whispers can be distinctly heard— the voice seeming to come from above and behind the listener.
The decorations of the rotunda are a fair example of the art of the Capitol. While much of this is individually fine, it everywhere presents a patchwork appearance, the more meritorious pictures in many instances suffering severely by association with the merest daubs. There is a want of that harmony necessary to produce an artistic effect commensurate with such an imposing interior. This is due, in part, to material changes in the styles of decoration during the growth of the building, and, in part, to.the fact that some of the artists have been selected as well as hampered by "a little brief authority" or by Congressional legislation.
Let but some method other than favoritism and political influence be devised for the selection of art and artists, and the walls of the National Capitol will become, as they long ago should have been, a marvel of beauty throughout. One attempt has been made in this direction. It was during the erection of the marble wings which brought a wild desire for decoration, stimulated, no doubt, by diplomatic efforts of certain foreign artists at Washington. They secured most of the contracts ; and the feelings of their American brethren, especially of the more incompetent ones, naturally were bitter. This led to a memorial to Congress and to the provision in the acts of June 12, 1858, and March 3, 1859, that none of the money thereby appropriated for the extensions should be expended in decoration or embellishment by sculpture or painting unless such works of art had been examined and accepted by distinguished artists, three in number, to be selected by the President.
This commission sat in Washington. The spirit of its members, however, seemed to defeat its object. It devoted itself rather to the detraction of existing art and of the artists then at work than to the consideration of proper means for the attainment of harmonious and good results in the future. Its criticism of the imported masters, however, was not without some degree of justice, as is evinced by much of their work itself. There is no doubt that American artists of attainment are better able to portray on canvas and in marble the history, spirit and individuality of their own country than any of foreign birth. In this vein, it is interesting to note that the sons of the eminent American artist, Benjamin West, whose genius first commanded respect in Europe for his country's art, in 1826* offered to Congress in vain one hundred and fifty of their father's paintings, though the worst abortions have again and again received from it the highest compensation.
There is truth as well as humor in Mark Twain's reflections : " So you observe, that you take your view from the back of the capitol. And yet not from the airy outlooks of the dome, by the way, because to get there you must pass through the great rotunda: and to do that, you would have to see the marvelous Historical Paintings that hang there, and the bas-reliefs—and what have you done that you should suffer thus ? And besides, you might have to pass through the old part of the building, and you could not help seeing Mr. Lincoln, as petrified by a young lady artist for $10,000—and you might take his marble emancipation proclamation which he holds out in his hand and contemplates, for a folded napkin; and you might conceive from his expression and his attitude, that he is finding fault with the washing. Which is not the case. Nobody knows what is the matter with him; but everybody feels for him. Well, you ought not to go into the dome anyhow, because it would be utterly impossible to go up there without seeing the frescoes in it—and why should you be interested in the delirium tremens of art ? "