The painting is by Constantino Brumidi, the Italian immigrant who over two decades in the 19th century transformed the U.S. Capitol with his paintbrush. It’s a preparatory study — three feet in diameter — of his most famous work: “The Apotheosis of Washington.”
If you’ve ever toured the Capitol, you’ve craned your neck in the Rotunda to look up at Brumidi’s “Apotheosis.” That’s a word derived from Greek, and it means to raise someone to the status of a god, sort of like what we did with Jeremy Lin last week. In the painting, George Washington sits in the clouds, flanked by robed figures and surrounded by allegorical scenes. It is considered the greatest fresco in America.
Brumidi painted it in wet plaster on the inside of the Capitol dome during the Civil War. But before he painted it, he painted the miniature version, probably as a way to test out the composition. The study will be on the block March 4 at the Skinner auction house in Boston.
The last time it was on the market was in 1919 (or 1925; sources vary), when it was sold by the estate of Brumidi’s son Laurence, himself an artist, but who went insane and died in 1920 at St. Elizabeths mental hospital. Back then it went for $300. The current auction estimate is $250,000 to $300,000.
The U.S. government does not have that kind of money to throw around. Neither, it turns out, does the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, a nonprofit group founded in 1962 to educate the public on the history of the building and the people who have served there.
“We’ve put out feelers to a couple of people who might have some interest,” said Ronald Sarasin, president of the historical society. “So far, I have no idea whether anyone will make an attempt for it.”
In a perfect world, a deep-pocketed history buff will buy the painting and donate it to the historical society. (Tax deduction!) The historical society would then lend it or donate it to the Architect of the Capitol’s office and it would be displayed at the Capitol Visitor Center.
Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Architect of the Capitol, wrote the book on Brumidi. In an e-mail she wrote of the oil study: “It is a valuable part of our nation’s history and should be preserved for future generations.”
The sellers are a family from Hawaii, descendants of the person who bought it the last time it was on the market. They wish to remain anonymous, said Chris Barber, deputy director of American furniture and decorative arts at Skinner. The painting — on canvas and in a gilt frame — had been on display at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
“It’s a very house-ready piece,” Chris said. “Certain paintings are way too big for a person with a regular-sized home to own. It’s a nice size, but it’s not huge.”
It’s certainly smaller than the final “Apotheosis,” which is 65 feet across.
The artist Brumidi had an eventful life. He was born in Rome in 1805, learned to paint there and executed work in churches and palaces. In 1849, he got mixed up in the revolutions that were sweeping Italy and spent a year in prison. In 1852, he high-tailed it to the United States.
He painted several ceilings and corridors in the Capitol. After he finished “The Apotheosis” he went to work on the frieze just below it, climbing into a little scaffold set high above the Rotunda. One day, the elderly Brumidi fell from the scaffold and hung by his arms for 15 minutes before he was rescued. He returned to the scaffold the next day but was apparently reluctant to perch so high after that. For the next four months he concentrated on designing the rest of the frieze, sketching ideas until the day before he died on Feb. 19, 1880, at age 74.
Brumidi is buried in Glenwood Cemetery.
To read more columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.