Art History

Statuary and Dignitaries

Joan of Arc statue (Source: Charlotte Muth)

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.

Proof That Adams Morgan Was Never Fully "Demuralized"

"Un Pueblo Sin Murales Es Un Pueblo Desmuralizado" in 2014, after being restored the second time. (Source: Hola Cultura)

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: “Un Pueblo Sin Murales Es Un Pueblo Desmuralizado,” which translates to the tongue-in-cheek tautology “A People Without Murals are a Demuralized People.” Now over forty years old, this mural is the largest, oldest and longest-standing Latinx mural in D.C.

Portrait of Ginevra de' Benci by Leonardo da Vinci

"New Girl in Town": Washington Gets a Leonardo

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. 

Constantino Brumidi (Photo source: Architect of the Capitol)

The Michelangelo of the Capitol

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."

The Scurlocks Photograph Washington's Secret City

A husband and wife stand outside the Metropolitan Church (Source: Scurlock Collection/The Smithsonian)

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.”

New Rescue Project Underway to Save Washington's Only Known Synagogue Mural

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!

Attempted Rembrandt Heist at the Corcoran

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.