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«Minnesota State Capitol: Overview of the Fine Art Minnesota State Capitol: Overview of the Fine Art An Overview of the Original Art in the Minnesota ...»

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Minnesota State Capitol:

Overview of the Fine Art

Minnesota State Capitol:

Overview of the Fine Art

An Overview of the Original Art in the Minnesota State Capitol

In the planning and construction of Minnesota’s third state capitol building from 1896Cass Gilbert, its architect, had envisioned the exterior having statuary in marble and

bronze and interior spaces decorated with impressive works of art. His inspiration was not only from trips to Europe but directly influenced by a pivotal event in United States history, the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) of 1893.

The Fair not only presented new technological advancements and wonders, but it opened the door to a new generation of architects and artists who oversaw the construction and decoration of what became known as “The White City.” Trained in classical architecture and art, in particular at the Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris, the goal of these professionals was to revive the features and themes of the Italian Renaissance into public buildings. Through the use of Classical symbolism and allegory, the art was designed to inspire and educate the visitor.

The construction of the Library of Congress (Jefferson Building) in the mid-1890s was the first test case after the fair which captured in large scale, that Beaux Art philosophy. It was a resounding success and set the direction in public architecture for the next forty years.

Despite budget concerns, Gilbert’s vision for the interior of the capitol did not waiver. In his 1901 architect report, he noted

clearly his intention for the art:

“Nothing will give the building greater distinction or lend more to its educational value and to the evidence of the advancement of civilization and intelligence of the State than the recognition of the arts as represented by the great painters and sculptors of the present day, and I unhesitatingly and strongly recommend that ample provision be made to decorate the building with mural painting and sculpture…” To keep that goal high on the priority list, Gilbert took several members of the Board of Capitol Commissioners on a fact-finding trip out East to view similar art programs and decorations in recently opened public buildings. After their visit, the board members were convinced this needed to be done and became strong advocates to direct the necessary funding to make that happen. As the process moved forward, Gilbert also established an advisory board of well-known muralists to assist with the decorative elements and themes that we see today. He hand-picked the artists that would do the work, commented on their sketches, and oversaw all decisions related to the art.

As the interior work was in full swing after 1900, the Minnesota Historical Society, politicians and Civil War veterans and groups, resisted the direction the art program was taking – portraying historical happenings in allegorical settings. Instead, they advocated for artwork that represented real people and real events of Minnesota’s past. Changes to the Governor’s Reception Room were made to include eight large paintings that span two hundred years of the state’s history.

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Edwin Blashfield, who painted the two murals in the Senate Chamber and later a painting for the Governor’s Anteroom, summed up the purpose of their work and goal as muralists in The Brochure of the Mural Painters: “Decorative Art [architecture, sculpture, painting] is at once an embellisher, a celebrant and a recorder. It records the happenings of the state, it lends significance to the walls, it celebrates actions and immortalizes the features of worthy citizens. It acquaints the spectator with history, it stimulates patriotism and morals…. In sum, mural painting is an integral and essential part of that public and municipal art which is a public and municipal educator.” The importance of the original artwork to tell a story or inspire the viewer to greater thought and contemplation cannot be overlooked. Each artist utilized their skills and artistic ideas to complete, in the view of many art critics, their finest work in the Minnesota State Capitol.

Each permanent mural has its special place within the overall design of the building. Although classical in their depictions and often allegorical in what they represent, they also symbolize Minnesota’s continuing story to link the past, to the present and for the future.

In succeeding years, art in the form of busts, statuary, memorial plaques and governor portraits have been added inside the building to

continue telling that story. A list of firsts includes:

a bust of Henry Rice in 1906 (Senate Chamber), the William Colvill statue in 1909 (2nd Floor Rotunda), three plaques commemorating the Board of Capitol Commissioners, Capitol dedication and a building general description (1st floor) in 1907. The Third Mn. Entering Little Rock, was the first framed painting installed in 1910 (Governor’s Anteroom). The tradition of hanging governor portraits in the public corridors was established in 1944. No original work of art has been removed from the capitol in its 110 year history.

–  –  –

There has never been a comprehensive conservation or restoration effort for the original mural art work. The work that has been completed was due to an urgent repair need or coupled with another repair project. Due to coal dust, residue from smoking and the accumulation of dust and dirt, many of the paintings were cleaned about every 20 years – usually with workers using a brush and a pail of water.

More careful professional examination, conservation and cleaning was completed in the 1970s and 1980s for the large murals in the east grand stair and rotunda, and three paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room. In 1988, as part of the restoration of the Senate Chamber the two large murals were cleaned. Decorative ceiling stencils have been restored in the Rathskeller (1999) and the third floor corridors (2007-2008).

The following list of the major works of art provides background information about each artist, their narrative of what the painting represents, previous conservation efforts and a listing of all works of art in the Capitol.

Brian Pease Site Manager, State Capitol Historic Site Minnesota Historical Society Brian Szott Head of Collections Curator of Art Minnesota Historical Society Fine Art at the Capitol by Location East Grand Staircase Contemplative Spirit of the East Lunettes Senate Chamber Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi Minnesota: Granary of the World West Grand Staircase The Sacred Flame (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) Lunettes Rotunda Civilization of the Northwest (Southwest Corner) Civilization of the Northwest (Northwest Corner) Civilization of the Northwest (Northeast Corner) Civilization of the Northwest (Southeast Corner) Supreme Court Chamber Moral and Divine Law Recording of the Precedents The Adjustment of Conflicting Interests The Relation of the Individual to the State Governor’s Reception Room Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux The Battle of Nashville The Fourth Minnesota Entering Vicksburg The Second Minnesota Regiment at Missionary Ridge The Battle of Gettysburg The Third Minnesota Entering Little Rock The Fifth Minnesota at Corinth Miscellaneous Flora of Minnesota Zodiacs Old Fort Charlotte on the Pigeon River Untitled (River Fishing Scene) Attack on New Ulm Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain) Appendices Inventory of Art in the Minnesota State Capitol – March 2013 Policy for Works of Art in the Minnesota State Capitol East Grand Staircase

–  –  –

Description (original by artist):

The intention is to symbolize the East as the land of contemplation and stability as contrasted with the progress and activity of the West. The composition therefore made as grave and formal as possible. Enthroned in the centre, with brooding wings, sits Contemplation, draped and hooded in deep blue. She is lost in thought and stares into space with unseeing eyes. On either side sit Letters and Law, both of Eastern origin. Letters is laurel crowned and reads from a great book. Law bears the scepter of power and the bridle of control.

The composition as a whole is meant to form a fitting introduction to the decorations of the Supreme Court, which depict the development of Law.

Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) was born into a prominent mid-western family of theologians, lawyers, and politicians. Despite poor health and his mother’s concerns for his welfare, Cox took art courses, hoping one day to combine his artistic talent with his family’s commitment to social service. He studied in Paris from 1877 until 1882, when he moved to New York to work as an illustrator and art critic. Within ten years Cox was accepting mural commissions for such prestigious institutions as the Library of Congress and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. These projects helped realize his hopes that art could serve an educational purpose. [Biography provided by the Smithsonian American Art Museum]

Conservation Notes:

In 1979, the painting was cleaned of surface dirt and water stains. Old varnish was removed and a new layer of varnish applied to the surface.

Courtesy of House of Representatives Photographer Andrew Von Bank Lunettes, c.1904 (six pieces) Commerce (above) Winnowing (not pictured) Stonecutting (not pictured) Milling (not pictured) Mining (not pictured) Navigation (not pictured) Arthur Willett Oil on canvas, permanently fixed to wall East Grand Stair – Below skylight vault Installed 1904


Located at the base of the skylight vaults above the stairs are six lunettes. Each one represents or notes important industry and activities that helped create the state’s identity and success in the early 1900s. When looking at each one carefully, the viewer can see what activity is represented by what each figure is holding or other visual clues, like a train, a lighthouse, grain elevator, and the Capitol in the background.

Arthur Willett (1868-1951) was an English born artist who worked with Elmer Garnsey to execute the allegorical paintings of Minnesota’s economic activity and industries.

–  –  –

Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi c. 1905 Edwin H. Blashfield Oil on canvas, permanently fixed to wall Senate Chamber, North Wall Installed 1905


Set in a northern Minnesota forest, in the center of the lunette sits the Manitou or Great Spirit. He is symbolically pouring water out of an urn to start the flow of the river. In front of him is a young Indian woman and in a protective stance, an Indian wearing an eagle feathered headdress.

At the right are the explorers who searched for the source of the river. They are led by the Spirit of Discovery who holds in her hand a compass. The left side of the lunette shows the civilizers, representing families and religion coming to this area led by the Spirit of Civilization.

Born in New York and groomed for a career in engineering, Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848studied at Boston Latin School, Harvard College, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While at MIT, his mother, an artist, sent some of his drawings to the French academic painter Jean Léon Gérôme, whose interest convinced Blashfield's father to allow his son to pursue a career in art. He studied in Paris with the French history and portrait painter Léon Bonnat from 1867 to 1870 and, interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war, from 1874 to 1880.

During the interregnum, he traveled in Europe and returned to New York, where he painted genre pictures. He settled in New York in 1881, producing paintings and illustrations for St.

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