Walk up the spiral staircase at the GW Museum, take a right into the first gallery, and you will be met with a pair of large (5’ x 6’) bird-eye's-view paintings of Washington, DC. Both represent the capital city in the 1820s and, at first glance, the two works look very similar, with comparable coloring, landscape, and style. That’s not suprising as both were done by the same artist and, significantly, the two pieces share the same view – looking down on the District from Arlington Heights. But, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the paintings represent different perspectives of the fledgling national Capitol – one aspirational, the other more realistic.
If you take a stroll through Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, you will find two noteworthy statues: on the lower level, a standing figure of the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri; on the upper terrace, an equestrian statue of the French saint, Jeanne d’Arc, or, Joan of Arc, anglicized. Interestingly enough, these two artworks were unveiled at the park within one month of each other—Dante on Dec. 2, 1921, and Jeanne following on Jan. 6, 1922. Walking past these serene bronze monuments, few would guess their pivotal role a century-old saga when rumored remarks in Washington led to riots in Europe.
Three figures with wolfish grins gather around a table, red as blood. What’s on the table? Money and houses. It’s a game of Monopoly, but the people aren’t people and the game is strictly metaphorical. This image occupies the upper right quadrant of a mural located at 1817 Adams Mill Road NW in Adams Morgan. The name of the mural is “Un Pueblo Sin Murales Es Un Pueblo Desmuralizado,” which literally translates to “A People Without Murals is a Demuralized People.” But the name in Spanish is a play on words: "A People Without Murals is a Demoralized People," emphasizing the value of public art — and artistic representation — to the community. Now over forty years old, this mural is the largest, oldest and longest-standing Latinx mural in D.C.
On a cold night in January 1967, a plane landed quietly at National Airport. No one could know where it came from and what it carried. in fact, the only indication of the plane's arrival came through a coded message, sent by the FBI agents on board: "the Bird" had landed. Despite all this, though, the only thing that came off the plane was a perfectly ordinary, plain grey American Tourister suitcase. No one suspected anything.
However, rumors circulated. Two weeks later, the New York Times broke the news that Washington's National Gallery of Art had landed the art deal of the century: the purchase of a painting by one of the most famous artists in the world, Leonardo da Vinci.
In the U.S. Senate's sculpture collection, there are plenty of busts of instantly recognizable historical figures such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But enshrined alongside them, there's also the lushly-bearded, bowtie-wearing likeness of an obscure 19th Century Italian-American artist. While Brumidi, who signed his work "C. Brumidi Artist Citizen of the U.S.," isn't a famous name, he left a lasting mark on the U.S. Capitol, by creating striking frescoes and murals that add charm and grace to the building's interior.
Brumidi's work, which can be found throughout the Capitol, includes the fresco The Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda canopy. But his masterwork is the hallways on the first floor of the Senate wing, an assortment of frescoes and murals known as the Brumidi Corridors. Inspired by Raphael's Loggia in the Vatican, Brumidi's art is distinguished by his blending of classical imagery with patriotic American themes. The Washington Post once described Brumidi as "the genius of the Capitol," and noted that "so many of its stateliest rooms bear the touch of this tireless brush that he shall always be associated with it." Art historian Francis V. O'Connor has called him "the first really accomplished American muralist." A journalist of his time went even further, labeling him "the Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol."
Addison Scurlock dressed in a suit and tie whenever he held a camera. Confident and serious about his work and his appearance, he presented himself to the world the same way that he presented his subjects.
Scurlock was only 17 when he moved to Washington and listed “photographer” as his profession in the 1900 census. He apprenticed with a white photographer for three years before opening his own studio in his parents’ house. By 1911 he had a studio in northwest Washington, and soon he had two apprentices of his own: his sons, Robert and George. As adults, they joined him in the photography business.
“I would describe my father as very intense, in all of his endeavors,” Robert Scurlock said in a 2003 interview. “He had a lot of drive to him. If he saw something he wanted to explore, he would find all means of doing it.”
In the early 1990s, homeowner Stephanie Slewka made a fascinating discovery on the second floor of her 19th century townhouse at 415 M Street, NW: a mural concealed beneath layers of paint and wallpaper. As if peeling back layers of time, she found one of the only remaining traces of Shomrei Shabbos, a small orthodox community in downtown Washington that worshiped in the townhouse. The nearly 90-year-old mural was the upper portion of a larger piece that had surrounded the synagogue’s ark on the floor below.
Decades later, that same mural is in danger. Plans to convert the building into condominiums threaten the survival of this unique piece of Washington Jewish history.
Thanks to Samantha Bass and Zachary Paul Levine of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington for the guest post!
The 145-year-old Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington's oldest private art museum, announced that it will be taken over by George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art and cease to exist as an independent institution. That makes it a good time to look back at one of the more bizarre events in the history of art in Washington--the attempted theft in 1959 of a painting by 17th Century master Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn.
Washington has a long history of thefts of antiquities from its museums but this attempted heist was one of the stranger assaults on artwork that our city has seen.