California’s Capitol Art Includes Images of Cross and Conquest

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess our own controversial capitol art.

Today we visit California’s State Capitol, which includes both a history and an art museum. The State Capitol Art Program has hundreds of paintings, murals, and statues, and the 40-acre Capitol Park offers more monuments and memorials. Capitol art ranges from the typical political portraits and contemporary art to the Capitol Family Art program, which features the artworks for former legislators. We were glad to see California also displays current student, something we would like to see in Minnesota.

California is a big state with a big capitol. We will skim the surface of the art, but even reviewing a few key pieces is instructive.

Columbus Last Appeal to Queen Isabella: Minnesota has its Columbus statue on the Capitol grounds, California has the statue “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella” right in the Capitol Rotunda. Darius Ogden Mills gave the statue to the state in 1883. In a letter read at the dedication, Mills wrote: “the Rotunda of our State Capitol is an appropriate place for a work of art commemorating an event that had so great an influence on the destinies of the western world,” according to the on-line virtual tour. It continues:

Not all of California’s citizens agree with Mills that a statue of Columbus is appropriate for the Capitol Rotunda. Before the restoration in the 1970s, members of the Native Sons of the Golden West and other groups suggested that the Legislature relocate the statue and replace it with another statue of an important Californian. After all, Columbus himself never made it to within a couple thousand miles of California. During the restoration Native American and Latino groups, critical of Columbus’s legacy in ushering in an era of genocide and colonialism for the Native Peoples of the Western Hemisphere, advocated that the statue not be returned to its former location after its temporary removal during the restoration. Despite such criticism, the statue was returned to the Capitol Rotunda.

(Note: Minnesota’s Columbus statue has drawn recent attention from protestors and legislators. The protestors are calling for its removal, according to The Uptake. Legislators introduced bills to change the wording on the Columbus statue plaque from “discoverer” of America, to Columbus “landed” in America, according to CBS. Those bills, HF1727 and SF1821 did not get hearings this session.)

Adventure–Knight Errant and the Priest: Next up at the California State Capitol is a major mural by husband-and-wife team Arthur and Lucia Mathews, done in 1914 to depict “The Idealized History of California.” The state on-line virtual tour doesn’t provide much in the way of images or analysis. The website “Cupolas of Capitalism” offers a few images. It describes the mural as a series of 12 paintings organized in four clusters. Each cluster depicts an epoch of California history: Adventure, (Epoch I); The Mission Era, (Epoch II); The Pioneers, (Epoch III); and The City, (Epoch IV).

One particularly striking panel in the “Adventure” series shows the arrival of European settlers, here idealized as a Knight Errant and priest, and their interaction with California’s native peoples. (That description is from the United States Capitol History Society. Scroll down to find the image.) Of the three Native people shown, one is doing the heavy labor (side by side with a horse) and another, a youth, is naked. These are  typical ways in which paintings of this period depict Native people as uncivilized. From all appearances, this painting is less about “Adventure” and more about the knight and priest taking control–the knight with a cross and the priest with a blessing. A winged figure with a chalice leads the procession, and might represent divine guidance and intervention. While the art is a product of the era in which it was created, it’s at odds with the America’s core belief in freedom of religion. This contradiction goes unmentioned in the state’s on-line guide.

(Note: the Mathews murals were installed in the Rotunda’s first floor 40 years after the Capitol opened. They were moved to the Rotunda’s basement following a capitol renovation, restoring the Rotunda to its original appearance.)

Father Junipero Serra: Proceeding outside to the Capitol grounds, you find a monument to Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who established California’s first missions. The virtual tour describes the monument in dry, factual terms. It lists the nine missions Serra started, from the Mission of San Diego (1769) to Mission Buenaventura (1782). It avoids statements extolling his virtues–and why he deserves a monument–and avoids any controversy. Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul and is expected to become a saint. At the same time, Serra is controversial for his treatment of Native Americans and efforts to destroy their culture. KCET Public Television wrote a piece “Should We Celebrate the Legacy of Junípero Serra, California’s Founding Father?” which provides some background. This narrative is absent from state publications, at least the Capitol grounds tour guide found on line.

Pioneer Camillia Grove: Behind the Serra statue is the Pioneer Camillia Grove. The plaque reads: “Established as a living memorial to the early builders of California in recognition of their courage, determination & contribution toward progress in the community & our golden state.” Why Camillias? “Camellias, like the pioneers they honor, are not native to California. Originally from Southeast Asia, they made their debut in Sacramento during the Gold Rush.” Sacramento considers itself: “the Camillia City of the World.”

Indian Grinding Rock: One monument to California’s Native peoples on the Capitol grounds is the Indian Grinding Rock. Native Americans come to the rock and the nearby oak tree every year to honor the tree and its ability to produce food, according to the on-line narrative. It reads:

For thousands of years, native Indians lived in harmony with nature on the land that would later become the state of California. The men fished and hunted. The women harvested seeds, dug roots, and gathered herbs. And each fall men, women, and children came together to gather acorns, an important source of food.

This rock and the oak tree that stands behind it honor the contributions, past and present, that California Indians have made to the state’s history and culture. … [E]ach fall men, women, and children came together to gather acorns, an important source of food. In three days a family could harvest enough acorns to feed themselves for an entire year. Once harvested the acorns were dried. The women then pounded the acorns into meal from which they would make soup and mush, often using a rock like the one displayed in Capitol Park.

So how to tie all this together? After looking at several state capitols, I am struck that having early 1900s  art on the capitol walls is akin to teaching history using early 1900s text books. We might choose to leave the art in place because it is important to remember the worldview at that time,  but at a minimum the interpretation of that art and history needs a 21st century update. That puts the onus on Capitol historians to do the challenging work of providing a fuller narrative in a very public way.

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