United States Capitol (Drawing)

Artist/Maker: Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820)[1]

Created: 1806

Origin/Purchase: Washington, D.C.

Materials: pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor on paper

Dimensions: 49.5 x 68.9 (19 1/2 x 27 1/8 in.)

Location: During Jefferson's lifetime: Dining Room or in the private suites: Cabinet or Library or Bedroom

Provenance: Benjamin Henry Latrobe; by gift to Thomas Jefferson; by purchase or gift to John Neilson; to an unidentified person; by purchase to Nicholas Latrobe Roosevelt; by descent to William Morrow Roosevelt; by gift to the Library of Congress

Historical Notes: When Jefferson appointed the English-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to the difficult position of surveyor of public buildings in the new city of Washington in 1803, his most pressing project was the completion of the United States Capitol, which was not yet one-third finished. He found that the Capitol project lacked a cohesive design and direction. There were no definitive drawings for the building, only early plans by William Thornton that had been heavily modified by Thornton himself, Jefferson, Etienne Sulpice Hallet, and others.[2]

Jefferson played an important role in the design and construction of the Capitol. He mediated between Latrobe's proposed changes and Thornton's original plan, which had received the approval of George Washington a decade earlier. This delicate situation was further complicated by Jefferson's extensive knowledge of architecture; Latrobe respected, but did not always agree with Jefferson's opinions.

Latrobe's presentation of this drawing to Jefferson is indicative of their working relationship.[3] This perspective demonstrated that Latrobe had followed Jefferson's suggestion to incorporate elements from one of his favorite ancient buildings, Diocletian's Portico, into the design of the east front of the Capitol. The drawing was also meant to convince the president of the practicality of using cupolas (termed "lanterns" by Latrobe), to which Jefferson replied:

"You know my reverence for the Graecian and Roman styles of architecture. I do not recollect ever to have seen in their buildings a single instance of a lanther, Cupola, or belfry. I have ever supposed the Cupola an Italian invention...and one of the degeneracies of modern architecture."[4]

Jefferson displayed this drawing in the President's House, with two others, the "Portico of Diocletain," and an unidentified plan of the Capitol.[5] He left all three drawings in Washington after his departure from the presidency in 1809, so that Latrobe could refer to them. As late as 1811, he requested that they be returned to him at Monticello. Apparently, the works arrived by 1815, when Jefferson listed "Diocletian's Portico" in his Catalogue as being in the Dining Room next to Robert Mills's elevation of Monticello. The Capitol drawings were most likely kept in Jefferson's private suite of rooms.

Despite his differences with Latrobe, Jefferson paid a high compliment to him for his work on the Capitol:

"I believe that the work when finished will be a durable and honorable monument of our infant republic, and will bear favorable comparison with the remains of the same kind of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome."[6]

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 158-159.
  2. Charles E. Brownell, "The United States Capitol," in The Architectural Drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe Part 2, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 2:344.
  3. Robert Mills, whom Jefferson had introduced to Latrobe, drew the preparatory plan for this perspective. Latrobe hoped to do a similar perspective of Monticello, also using one of Mills's drawings, but apparently never completed the project. Jefferson to Latrobe, Monticello, October 10, 1809, in PTJ:RS, 1:595-596. Polygraph copy available inline from the Library of Congress.
  4. Jefferson to Latrobe, Monticello, April 26, 1807, in The correspondence and miscellaneous papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ed. John C. Van Horne and Lee W. Formwalt (Maryland Historical Society by Yale University Press, 1984), 2:411.
  5. The identity of Jefferson's "Diocletian's Portico," is enigmatic. Latrobe indicated that it was not the Palace at Spalatro, and described it as looking "much more like a restoration of a ruin by a Modern Artist." Latrobe to Jefferson, Washington, December 7, 1806, Latrobe Papers, 2:321-324.
  6. Jefferson to Latrobe, Monticello, October 10, 1809, in PTJ:RS, 1:595. Polygraph copy available inline from the Library of Congress.

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