Kansas Capitol Art: A History of Controversy

Minnesota is in the middle of a major capitol renovation, including a review of its historic art. Some of the pieces are controversial for how they portray Native Americans and early Minnesota history. This blog has undertaken a review of art in other state capitols to look for similarities and differences and to see what lessons Minnesota might learn. (These blogs are aggregated on our Capitol Art page.)

Continuing alphabetically, today we visit the Kansas State Capitol. Let’s start with the name “Kansas.” Like several other state names (such as Iowa, Illinois, and South Dakota) Kansas comes from the name of an Indian tribe. The Kansa also are known as the Kaw Nation, or People of the South Wind, according to Wikipedia. And the Kansas capital, Topeka, takes its name from the Kaw word for “a good place to grow potatoes.”

Thanks to Kansas’ well organized online tour of the capitol, we can learn about the state’s rich history of capitol art controversy.

Let’s begin the capitol tour with the dome controversy. In the late 1800s, the state held a design competition to decide what statue to put atop the dome; the winner proposed the figure of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility. Public outcry killed the project, however. Not only was the $6,950 cost deemed exorbitant, but others balked at honoring a Roman pagan goddess. According to the Kansas Historical Society: “Victorian sensibilities being what they were had many questioning [Ceres‘] morals, in particular, her liaisons with her brother Jupiter.” (Jupiter and Ceres had a daughter, Proserpina.) The dome went unadorned until 2002, when the state installed a 22-foot-tall statue of a Kansa warrior firing an arrow into the air. According to the capitol guide: “The warrior faces toward the North Star, a symbol of finding one’s way. The statue is named for the state motto: Ad astra per aspera, ‘To the stars through difficulties.’”

Art inside the capitol sticks closely to the themes of western migration and early settler life. The art is romanticized/historical, but unlike Minnesota’s capitol art, the Kansas art does not include angels or cherubs leading settlers forward. A series of first floor murals by David Overmyer spans the history of western settlement. They include:

Westward Ho
Westward Ho

On the second floor are two murals by John Steuart Curry. The one titled Tragic Prelude includes Father Juan de Padilla, part of Coronado’s 1541 excursion to the area. The painting of Padilla is an example of art we have seen in other capitols that highlights efforts to convert the Native peoples. Father Padilla established the first Christian mission in what would become the United States, according to Wikipedia. Padilla also is considered the first Christian martyr in the United States, according to the Kansas capitol guide:

Padilla ministered to American Indians who had grown to love him. Legends say Padilla felt his mission was complete and wanted to move on, he was stoned to death rather than to be allowed to leave.

That might be a comforting legend who want to believe that the Native peoples welcomed missionaries with open arms, but that version of history may be more fiction than fact, according to the Legends of Kansas website. It sites an old account stating that when Padilla returned to the area from New Mexico, Indians met him in battle array and killed him.

The Tragic Prelude mural also includes a dramatic painting of abolitionist John Brown, who led the unsuccessful raid at Harper’s Ferry. Curry’s other second floor mural is called Kansas Pastoral, which shows a romanticized view of early Kansas settler life. Curry was going to do more second floor murals, but art controversy again reared up. Cattlemen said that that the Hereford bull Curry painted in his pastoral scene “was too red, too long, and his neck was too thick,” the capitol tour guide says. Others complained that his nighttime prairie scene looked like an ocean and his oil derricks could be mistaken for ship masts. Curry had planned to do other murals, but stopped in 1942 amid the criticism. In protest, he did not sign his works.

Additional second floor murals were added in 1978. Artist Lumen Martin Winter was hired, and he added more romanticized images of homesteader life, such as Sowing, (a beautiful young woman embracing a sheaf of wheat) Education, (a one-room school house) and Well Digging. The murals stayed with the historic settler theme; it seems Kansas missed an opportunity to add some future-looking art.

Inside the Kansas House of Representatives, there are a series of four murals titled: Law, History, First Dawn of Liberty, and Justice. The painting of Law includes an image of a Native man sitting admiringly at the foot of a woman with the book of law, his bow unstrung, submissive.

For more on the Kansas capitol, see the online tour.

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