A Tour of the Capitol Rotunda Paintings for the Fourth of July

Robert W. Weir’s Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843 (Architect of the Capitol)
On this holiday celebrating our beginnings, today’s raging, bored, and bossy mob may need a dose of history paintings.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S ince it’s the Fourth of July, I’m going to write about history, and, man, Woodrow Wilson’s racist patootie on a spike puts a spring in my step. Princeton stripped the name of its long-ago president from its public-affairs school. He was our worst U.S. president for long-term damage.

I don’t mind tenured college professors, but, as self-important fonts of naïveté as well as specialist knowledge, they’re best kept on a short leash. Ivory towers, after all, breed a sense of unreality that can cause more harm than good. They’re not known as places where common sense thrives.

Wilson wanted to remake the universe after the First World War, the one he’d famously “kept us out of” when he ran for reelection in 1916. By 1917, though, 1916 was so yesterday and “over there” the doughboys went. All his smarty-pants map-drawing at Versailles delivered tangles we’re still unwinding.

I hope Princeton doesn’t think this’ll keep the mob away. They cry “what have you done for me lately” as often as a baby with a soiled diaper.

And Theodore Roosevelt’s in the news, too. Of course, his sculpture in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York should stay where it is. It’s the director and trustees who need to go. It’s clear that no one — not the artist, the patrons, or its audience when it was unveiled — thought it demeaned anyone.

I know, we’re seeing lots of bottomless-pit people on a Bolshie rampage. They wake up angry, bored, and bossy. They’re unassuageable. This isn’t the looter class. They couldn’t care less about old statues — they want sneakers, Hermès, and hip electronics. The kneelers and ragers went to college, where their professors and deans never told them how much they don’t know, much less how bad their manners are. Educated beyond their intelligence, they can’t absorb complexity.

I think on this Fourth of July they need a dose of Pocahontas, de Soto, and the Pilgrims. The Capitol Rotunda paintings in Washington are famous for their giant — 12 by 18 feet — scenes of the Surrender of General Burgoyne, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the Declaration of Independence, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission, all by John Trumbull (1756–1843), the dean of American history painting.

Less known but also in the Rotunda are John Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas (1839), Robert Weir’s Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1843), John Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus (1847), and William Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto (1853).

Tourists listen to a guide (red jacket) in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda next to the painting Baptism of Pocahontas in Washington, D.C., in 2014. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

At some point, probably around Columbus Day, I’ll write about Vanderlyn’s picture, since Christopher Columbus is about as big a scalp for left-wingers as Robert E. Lee. Columbus is, among the early explorers, in a class by himself. Suffice to say we commemorate him as a symbol of risk-taking, adventure, and discovery, against all odds and certainly against settled science and bloated, entitled elites. He’s anathema to those who want us all to shelter in place in perpetuity, masked, supine, and quiescent.

No one gives much thought to the other three paintings. They’re good and were prize commissions. Congress wanted the work of American, not European artists, as a point of national pride, decorating the Rotunda. Trumbull had finished his Revolutionary-era scenes by 1824, when the Rotunda was finished, but they filled only half the space. Old and half blind, he wasn’t up to finishing the job.

A big political fight kept the other half empty for years. The next picture was going to show General Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1812. Jackson ran for president, lost in the toxic 1824 election, then won in 1828, and was loathed by half the country and revered by the other half during his eight years in the White House. He was too controversial to get a painting. Putting love and hate aside, Congress chose in 1836 to fund four pictures showing subjects all the protagonists of which were dead: the early settlement of America, the Revolution, or the drafting of the Constitution.

All the artists were mainstream — the Warhols and Pollocks of the time, if any existed, need not apply. Each of them selected scenes mixing faith and civics. Chapman (1806–1889) painted the christening of Pocahontas, the Native-American princess from Virginia who famously persuaded Chief Powhatan, her father, not to kill the adventurer John Smith near Jamestown in 1607.

John Gadsby Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas, 1839 (Architect of the Capitol)

Pocahontas later married John Rolfe, among the early Jamestown settlers. By the 1830s, her marriage to Rolfe was romantic lore — Indian princess meets swaggering Englishman and then takes London by storm — and well-mined lore at that, both in writing and in art. Her throwing herself between Smith and a hatchet was also well covered. No one, until Chapman, had treated her christening. Pocahontas was — by her choice — baptized in Jamestown in 1613.

Chapman deftly assembles a big group, with Pocahontas flanked by two men: her minister on the left and Rolfe on the right. Rolfe, by the way, was among the first to cultivate and sell tobacco.

Jamestown in 1613 wasn’t this glam. The painting is inspired by Old Master depictions of coronations, weddings, and Jesus teaching in the Temple, all available to the gringo Chapman, who’d never been to Europe when he tackled Pocahontas. It’s got the gauzy court style of Veronese and Van Dyck, elegant and flowing, with the celebrities beautifully lit for their moment of fame.

Nantequaus, Pocahontas’s brother, stands tall among the small group of Natives. Smith, whose diary tells us most of what we think we know about Pocahontas, called him “the manliest, comeliest, boldest spirit I ever saw in a Savage.” The brother is not happy and turns away. Opechankanough, Pocahontas’s uncle, sits on the ground, sullen and sour. He’d later organize an attack on Jamestown in 1622, brutally killing dozens of women and children.

Chapman was from Virginia and selected a topic from his state’s history. A government-produced handout from 1840 identified the cast and explained what was happening. In converting to Christianity, Pocahontas escaped “the fangs of barbarous idolatry,” it said.

In embracing a new faith and marrying Rolfe and producing a family — Woodrow Wilson’s wife descended from the couple — Pocahontas created the template for assimilation. Assimilation — the melting pot — is really the origin story of Americans, not the crap peddled by the ugly, specious 1619 Project. It’s a bit of a one-sided deal, I know, since Pocahontas moved to London and the new amalgam was almost entirely Anglo, but in the 19th century and even today, Americans take pride in the Native blood many of us have. We assume a bit of Nantequaus is part of the mix, and we like it.

Each of the four new Rotunda paintings juxtaposes the Old World against the New. In Baptism of Pocahontas, the New World embraces Christianity, the best thing the Old World offers. The next picture is a tit-for-tat moment and a spin on how Christianity came to America. Embarkation of the Pilgrims shows William Brewster, the man holding the Bible; kneeling next to him, John Carver, Plymouth Colony’s first governor; John Robinson, praying and looking heavenward; and Miles Standish, kneeling on the right. Robinson was the Puritan minister in Leiden and stayed in Europe.

Both paintings are about journeys, Pocahontas’s from paganism to Christianity, and the Pilgrims’ literal journey across the ocean and intellectual one from the religious oppression of the Old World to the liberty of the New. The party leaving Leiden were Puritans and dissenters. They abhorred the self-dealing, licentious, dandified tone of the Church of England, loosey-goosey when it came to doctrine and backsliding toward Roman Catholicism. Stern, simple, and proud of their correctness, they willingly surrendered Dutch comfort for pioneer hazard.

Their grandchildren established Harvard, investing American universities with smug Puritan self-righteousness and a mean will to conform. No pikers when it came to kooky ideas and frenzied manias, they also hanged witches in Salem.

The Puritans in Chapman’s painting aren’t rabble. They’re vaguely archaic but also middle-class in look. The painting’s audience, after all, was their descendants, and the Pilgrims themselves were bourgeois cultists. This unites Weir’s painting with Chapman’s. Everyone is dressed for success.

The two compete in terms of region. There’s a founding story based in Jamestown (and Virginia), and one driven by New England. One is cavalier, with dandies and romance, the other intellectual and austere. Both evoke God’s authority in the Bible’s words and the sacraments, each backed by weaponry. In the Pilgrim picture, armor might be put aside, but it’s foregrounded and loaded on the ship. Spears, clubs, and guns poke through the crowd at Pocahontas’s christening, too.

Both deploy the most powerful weapon: family. Pocahontas’s christening precedes her marriage to Rolfe, who’s there and evokes her future as a proper Christian and an American mother. The Embarkation is about family values, too. The Pilgrims aren’t adventurers, and they’re not out for the big bucks. They’re men, women, and children building a new society. The rainbow on the left signals a new beginning much as it followed the flood Noah endured, linking one origin boat trip to another.

The painting made Weir famous, but he’s less known than his most illustrious student. As an instructor at West Point, Weir taught Whistler how to draw when Whistler was its most unlikely cadet, from 1851 to 1854. Tossed out for an overabundance of demerits, Whistler then went to Europe, but that’s another story.

William H. Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto, 1853 (Architect of the Capitol)

Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi (the only subject mandated by Congress among the four new Rotunda paintings) depicts Hernando de Soto and his party on the banks of the Mississippi, near present-day Memphis, in 1541. He and Columbus aren’t the only explorers decorating the Capitol Rotunda. Busts of Columbus, Raleigh, Cabot, and La Salle fill niches. In 1847, Vanderlyn’s 1492 landing of Columbus in the West Indies debuted as one of the big Rotunda paintings, the first to tackle the conquest of Spanish America.

Weir’s Pilgrims conquer through communal prayer. The endorsement of God carries the day, but if we need some firepower, we’ve got that, too. Children and women tell us the goal is permanent settlement and proliferation. The orientation is toward the future. Pocahontas’s future is faith and family, too.

There are no family values in Vanderlyn’s and Powell’s scenes. Powell’s presentation of de Soto quotes the equestrian portraits of Spanish kings by Velázquez. Absent are women and children, except for two Native women cowering on the ground. Powell’s picture also notes the connivance of conquistador and Roman Catholic priests. Soldiers and priests plant a big crucifix in the foreground. Beside it lie shovels and treasure chests. Plunder’s the name of the game.

Playing compare and contrast, we’ve got a Virginia story and a New England story. These reinforce Trumbull’s paintings. The surrenders of Burgoyne and Cornwallis signal the end of the colonial era. Washington Resigning His Commission establishes civilian control of the military. Declaration of Independence marks the triumph of Christian values. Chapman and Weir give us “how-to” pictures, too, using faith and family as the key ingredients.

The Columbus and de Soto pictures tell a different story. George Bancroft (1800–1891), the historian of America’s Founding, itemized the goals of the conquistadors in his History of the United States. Their concerns were “to carve out provinces with the sword, to divide the wealth of empires, to plunder the treasures of ancient Indian dynasties, to return from a roving expedition with a crowd of slaves and a profusion of spoils.” No families, no future, get rich quick, hit and run, leave squalor behind.

Dissing Spain and Spanishness was near the top of America’s nationalizing agenda in the 1840s. As much as our history concerns England, Spain is in the mix, too. We bought the Louisiana Purchase from the French, but they’d just bought it from Spain. Powell painted the de Soto picture two years after the end of the Mexican War. Mexico was free of Spain after 1819, but it was Spanish-acculturated. Cuba was a problem throughout the 19th century, which America ended with a war with Spain that delivered the coup de grâce to its empire.

The Black Legend fashioned how Anglo-America saw Spain. It’s a static, nightmare conception of Spanishness, dating from the days of the Armada and the Reformation, as cruel, treacherous, irrational, and greedy, as guardian of aristocracy, popery, and despotism of all kinds. It started with the reformist denunciation of the conquistadors by the Spaniard Bartolomé de las Casas in the early 16th century. Tussles with England sparked a version there; Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy was popular in the late 1580s. The Black Legend made Spain a scourge of Enlightenment modernity. Milton and Coleridge had Spanish villains. By the time the Rotunda paintings were done, Richard Henry Dana, Washington Irving, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cultivated it in their own ways. The Black Legend was the straw man beside which Anglo-Americans defined themselves.

Slavery in the 1840s and 1850s was the national train wreck waiting to happen and the mother of all unexploded bombs. That said, a country with millions of people thinks many things. The trait that amazes me the most about today’s mob is the absolute inability not only to hold multiple ideas in its collective head but to process them, to pluck good from bad, relevant from irrelevant, positive from negative, and all the gray that lies between black and white.

Mobs don’t do this well, I know, but most of these people have a college degree. Can’t they think, much less think before they screech? Teddy Roosevelt climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon. Maybe they need a bit of TR’s strenuous life. Fifty pushups and a run up San Juan Hill dodging bullets might be what it takes to get the circuits in their brains firing, though I’m not optimistic.

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