The Virginia State Capitol Art Collection

Richmond, VA




The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond was the first public building in the New World to be built in the Classical Revival style of architecture. It ranks as the second oldest working Capitol in the United States, having been in continuous use since 1788. (left: W. Goodacre, Jr, hand-colored engraving of the Capitol published in 1831)

Virginia's General Assembly held its first session in the church at Jamestown during the summer of 1619, twelve years after the founding of the Virginia colony and more than a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It is the oldest English-speaking continuous lawmaking body in the Western Hemisphere. The Library of Virginia's painting, Howard W. Montague, attributed. Virginia State Capitol. Oil on canvas, ca. 1860. 17 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches, conveys "some idea" of the Capitol's general appearance in the mid-1800s.


The Capitol Rotunda

Virginia's most treasured work of art, a magnificent, life-size statue of George Washington, stands in the Rotunda, located in the central portion of the Capitol. This sculpture of Washington is the only one executed from life. In June 1784 the General Assembly commissioned a statue to be made "of the finest marble and best workmanship" as a tribute to the great commander. Governor Benjamin Harrison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, our American minister in Paris, requesting him to engage a sculptor. He secured the services of Jean Antoine Houdon, the noted French artist. In the fall of 1785, just as Clérisseau was completing the plans for the Capitol, Houdon visited Mount Vernon. He made a plaster bust of Washington's head and took detailed measurements of his body. (left: Jean Antoine Houdon (French), George Washington, 1788, Carrara marble)

The statue, carved of Carrara marble, bears Houdon's signature and the date 1788. Prior to being shipped to America in May 1796, it was exhibited at the Louvre in Paris. Since its arrival in Virginia, the statue has been on continuous display in the Capitol. It was viewed by many of Washington's contemporaries, all of whom attested to its perfect likeness of the General. "That is the man, himself," Lafayette said, "I can almost realize he is going to move."

Dramatic natural lighting on the statue is achieved by the skylights in the Rotunda's ceiling. The statue presents Washington erect, head uncovered, sword on the left, cane in the right hand -- representing in device what Washington had so forcibly expressed in his reply to the address of the General Assembly of Virginia: the subordination of the military to the civil power. The fasces and ploughshare are by his side; the one representing authority, power and honor and the other, the peaceful arts most congenial to his taste and feelings. Houdon's monument to America's foremost Revolutionary War hero recalls his life as a soldier, statesman, and lover of the peaceful arts.

Displayed in niches along the walls of the Rotunda are busts of the other seven Virginia-born presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson. Jefferson's bust, a a copy by Attilio Piccirilli of an original done from life by Houdon, was the gift of a group of French citizens; the other busts were gifts from Virginia citizens, their placement authorized by the General Assembly in 1930. Piccirilli also sculpted the bust of James Monroe. The busts of James Madison and of Zachary Taylor are the work of Frederick William Sievers; the bust of William Henry Harrison is by Chester Beach; John Tyler is by Charles Keek; and Woodrow Wilson is by Harriet Frismuth.


The Old House of Delegates

The old hall of the House of Delegates is located off the Rotunda opposite the portico entrance. It is the largest room in the Capitol, measuring eighty-six feet in width. Typical of Jefferson's use of classical architecture, it resembles an open courtyard. The coved ceiling has rounded corners and the moldings resemble the exterior eaves of a classical building.

Now a museum, the chamber has been the scene of many historic events. As there was no other large building in Richmond and St. John's Church was remote from the westward-growing town, the Capitol was used regularly for church services-Episcopal and Presbyterian churches alternated Sundays.

The old hall was the meeting place of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1788 to 1906. Here in 1807, Aaron Burr was acquitted of treason in a trial presided over by John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States. The convention which drafted the Virginia constitution of 1830 held part of its sessions here, as did the constitutional conventions of 1850-51, 1868-63, and 1901-02. The Virginia Secession Convention of 1861 met here during part of its first session. It was also a meeting place of the Confederate Congress. The old hall was restored in 1929.

The old hall is filled with pieces of statuary. There is a marble statue of Henry Clay by Joel T. Hart, which formerly stood on the grounds. Busts, some in marble and others in bronze, represent other great Virginians: there are Revolutionary statesmen--George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and George Wythe; and Confederate heroes--Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Joseph E. Johnston, and Fitzhugh Lee. Other busts in this room represent Matthew Fontain Maury, the Pathfinder of the Seas; Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the grain reaper; John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States; and Sam Houston, first president of the Texas Republic. Niches on either side of the door contain marble busts of two non-Virginians -- Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Alexander H. Stephens, his vice president. (left: Rudulph Evans, General Robert E. Lee, bronze)

Most striking of all statuary located in this room is the bronze likeness of General Robert E. Lee by Rudulph Evans. The statue stands where Lee stood on April 23, 1861, when, at age fifty-four, he accepted command of the Confederate forces in Virginia.


The Old Senate

The former Senate chamber, now used for occasional committee meetings, contains paintings rather than statuary. These pictures depict two of the most important events in the history of the Commonwealth and of the nation. One painting, completed in 1949 by Griffith Bailey Coale, represents the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in America. It shows three ships, the Susan Constant, theGodspeed, and the Discovery, bringing the first settlers to Virginia in May 1607. (left: Griffith Bailey Coale, The Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery, 1949)

Another painting (lover right) representing the winning of national independence depicts the October 14, 1781, storming of British Redoubt Number 10, a climactic event in the last battle of the Revolutionary War at Yorktown. It was painted about 1840 by the French artist, Louis Eugène Lami. Original woodwork and modern draperies that follow designs by Jefferson decorate this room.


The Capitol Grounds

On the grounds, east of the Capitol, is the Executive Mansion, designed by the Boston architect Alexander Parris. This house has served as the official residence of the Governors of Virginia since 1813. Another historic building on the grounds is the Old Bell Tower, built in 1824 for the Virginia Public Guard. It is located to the west of the Capitol.

A statue of Edgar Allan Poe, who grew up in Richmond and edited The Southern Literary Messenger there, is near the Bell Tower. On the grounds north of the Capitol are statues of General Stonewall Jackson; Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, a famous Confederate surgeon; William "Extra Billy Smith, Governor of Virginia and Confederate Brigadier General; and Virginia's former governor and senator Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.

The equestrian statue of Washington on the grounds, northwest of the Capitol, surmounts a monument conceived as a glorification, not of one individual but of an idea. Virginia's role in the Revolution is exemplified by seven of her sons, with allegorical figures depicting their individual contributions, namely: Andrew Lewis, Colonial Times,· Thomas Jefferson, Independence, Patrick Henry, Revolution,· Thomas Nelson, Finance, George Mason, Bill of Rights, John Marshall, Justice. (left: Thomas Crawford, Randolph Rogers, Equestrian Statue of George Washington and Monument, 1850-1869, bronze and marble)

Thomas Crawford designed the monument and was the sculptor for the statues of Washington, Jefferson, Henry and Mason. The cornerstone was laid in 1850 and the Washington statue was unveiled in 1858. Crawford died before the completion; Randolph Rogers executed the statues of Marshall, Nelson, Lewis and the allegorical figures, the last of which was put in place in 1869.

Text and images courtesy of the Department of General Services, State of Virginia

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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