When pro-Trump protestors stormed the US Capitol last week, some detected a contrast between the art and the mob: the former framed the ideals of the republic, the latter betrayed them.
I’m not so sure. The Capitol collections tell the story of an America in which insurrection and reactionary politics have always been key elements.
The neo-classical rotunda, located in the middle of the Capitol, is decorated by paintings representing colonisation and revolution, crowned at the dome by a circular fresco, completed in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, that depicts George Washington in heaven, surrounded by allegorical figures. The art blends history, reason and faith to suggest the republic was blessed by providence.
During the riot, the police seemed to set up camp underneath Robert Weir’s 1843 oil painting Embarkation of the Pilgrims (see below), showing Christian settlers departing for the New World in 1620: a rainbow on the left represents the hope of a new life.
They were escaping the threat of persecution, yes, but weren’t in search of liberty quite as we would understand it. They wanted the freedom to be godly and to live among the righteous.