The Greek who painted the United States Capitol

The Greek who painted the United States Capitol

July 1, 2008. The U.S. Congress convenes on Capitol Hill to honor posthumously, with its highest distinction, the Congressional Gold Medal, the painter Constantinos Brumidis, the man who held as his life's ambition “to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty” with his art.
The Congress concluded that the celebration of the 203rd anniversary of the birth of Constantinos Brumidis was an excellent opportunity to re-introduce him to the public and the visitors of the Capitol, the heart of the American Republic, since with his paintings in the Capitol, he focused on the significance of the reconciled people, after the experience of the painful Civil War, and anchored it in the principles that stem from the concept of Democracy as conveyed by the ancient Greek civilization.

Constantinos Brumidis had Greek ancestry.

His father, Stavros, hailed from Filiatra, but his family's involvement in the unsuccessful Orloff revolt forced him to leave his homeland in 1774 and go first to Venetian Zakynthos and next to Rome in 1781. In Rome, he married Italian Annamaria Bianchini and Constantinos Brumidis was born in 1805. Constantinos Brumidis never visited Greece, but he didn't forget his father's homeland. In the Bible he received upon his arrival in the USA, years later, in his personal information, he wrote: "born in Rome, of Stavros Brumidis, from Filiatra, a region in Arcadia, in the Peloponnese, in Greece...".

Constantinos Brumidis studied visual arts in Rome, in La Accademia di San Luca, where his teachers included Vincenzo Camuccini, Antonio Canova και the Danish Bertel Thorvaldsen. They taught him the modern approach to classical and neoclassical art, and F.Agricola taught him how to highlight historical and religious themes. His artistic talent in spiritual matters brought him to the Vatican and Pope Gregory 16th and allowed him to decorate several churches in Rome and paint the Pope’s portrait.
But history was never an ally to him. If the Orloff revolt drove his father away from the Peloponnese, the Italian rebellion for the country's unification in 1848 led him to prison. Even though he had become a captain in the Papal Army, his liberal beliefs prevented him from fighting the rebels. Fourteen months later, he was released under the condition to leave Italy. He accepted immediately since he desired to emigrate to the United States for a long time. On September 18, 1852, he arrived in New York; in a short time, he became an American citizen, and in 1855 he found himself in Washington. There, he read in a newspaper advertisement that the Capitol architects Walter and Meigs were looking for artists who were familiar with the art of fresco. In his "Diary,” Meigs wrote: "I met a lively old man, with a very red nose either from the Mexican sun or the brandy."

From 1855 and until the end of his life, on February 19, 1880, he never stopped working in the Capitol. He decorated, among others, the President's Room, the Senate Reception Room, the Senate Appropriations Room, the railings for all the staircases in the corridors of the Senate wing, etc. Artistically, he was inspired by the Renaissance; he appreciated Raphael's style and adopted the Baroque fresco technique. He was called the "Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol" because he applied, for the first time in the USA, Michelangelo's fresco technique. More precisely, he did it in his leading work, the "Apotheosis of Washington” in the Rotunda of the Capitol center, which he created in just 11 months, and the frieze with the depictions of significant events in American history.
The "Apotheosis of Washington" symbolizes life and freedom, universal and eternal principles inherited from the Greek civilization, and incorporated in the American Declaration of Independence. The artist saw Washington as Zeus sitting on his throne, holding a sword in his left hand, wearing a military uniform with a cloth wrapped around his feet. "Liberty" sits to his right and to his left, the winged "Victory," holding a trumpet, announces the triumph of victory. Thirteen Maidens flank the central figures, symbolizing America's original thirteen States, holding in their hands a banner with the Latin phrase: "E Pluribus Unum," out of many, one.

The Dome's perimeter is lined with six groups of Olympian gods with the following symbolisms: Athena for Science, Poseidon for Marine, Hermes for Commerce, Hephaestus for Construction, and Demeter for Agriculture. The "Armed Freedom" (Columbia) group alludes to the fight against crime, tyranny, and Kingly power.
C. Brumidis, however, did not dwell only in the past. Technological advancement interested him greatly. It is the reason the Dome and the groups apart from the deities are also adorned with the inventions of the time, the electric generator, the telegraph cable, etc. When he undertook the project, he said: “My only ambition and daily prayer is to be able to live long enough to make beautiful the Capitol ..." Despite the misfortunes that befell him personally and the accidental fall from a ladder that made the last years of his life particularly difficult, he managed to see his work in the Rotunda completed.

Still, from 1880 to 1937, he was completely forgotten. Only after the wife of an Arizona congressman, Myrtle Cheney Murdock, began searching for evidence of this "C. Brumidi who signs so many works, but no one seems to know him" and wrote his first biography in 1950, then and only then his life surfaced again. Since then, no one can ignore the fact that through the honors bestowed to him, the Greek diaspora in the USA, its continuous presence there, and, of course, the strong friendship between the Greek and the American people, are also honored.

P.S. On the Internet, one can find his detailed biography with an extensive bibliography, titled: Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S. — Constantino Brumidi Artist of the Capitol.