This image of a grand if as yet somewhat disproportionate Capitol Building, with few near neighbors of consequence and many acres of pasture, is an authentic record.1This painting is not dated. See Kennedy Quarterly 8, no. 4 (January 1969): 241, for the date 1844, given as part of the title. Naylor, 203, states that the painting is dated 1844.Von Salzen repeats the date in the photo caption (p. 229) but omits any date in the catalogue entry (p. 180). If the painting was ever dated, it has disappeared (the edge of the canvas below the signature is cut and tattered and relined). I have retained the date as “ca. 1844” because it is reasonable to assume that MacLeod painted his Glimpse shortly before his (undocumented) move to New York. The painting is clearly signed, at lower right, “W McLEOD;” two later works of 1863 and 1873 (Corcoran Gallery of Art) are just as clearly signed “W MacLeod.” Inconsistent spelling was common in the nineteenth century. In 1844 most of the buildings in the immediate neighborhood were boardinghouses and hotels for the use of congressmen. A cluster of houses just east (left) of the Capitol is probably Carroll Row, five Federal town houses built about 1805 on the site now occupied by the Library of Congress.2This is possibly the painting distributed by the American Art-Union in 1848.Von Salzen, 180: “In a letter to the Art Committee of the American Art-Union dated August, 1848, MacLeod submitted a ‘small landscape representing a distant glimpse of the Capitol at Washington, D.C. from the Northeast. The piece is original and painted by myself—price $25.00.’” It was no. 130 in the Exhibition Records. A second, similar version of the painting was owned (1981) by Government Services Savings and Loan, Bethesda, Maryland. It could be the painting exhibited as no. 130. For early views of Washington, see Reed, 12.
Charles Bulfinch’s Capitol dome, soon to be replaced, looked too tall for its base, but it dominated the skyline in its time. Charles Dickens, arriving in Washington in 1842, had “a beautiful view of the Capitol, which is a fine building of the Corinthian order, placed upon a noble and commanding eminence.” He called the rest of Washington “the City of Magnificent Intentions. . . . Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads and inhabitants. . . . One might fancy the season over, and most of the houses gone out of town for ever with their masters.”3Dickens, 114–15.
Another British visitor, Harriet Martineau, had exclaimed in 1835: “The city itself is unlike any other, that ever was seen, straggling out hither and thither, with a small house or two a quarter of a mile from any other; so that in making calls ‘in the city’ we had to cross ditches and stiles, and walk alternately on grass and pavements, and strike across a field to reach a street.”4Truett, 35.
Despite its ragged appearance, Washington was witness to stirring events in 1844. In February the accidental explosion of the great cannon on the steam-propelled warship Princeton killed many of the official party on board, including the secretaries of navy and state. Three months later Samuel F. B. Morse sent the historic telegraphic message from the Capitol Building to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought.” The Whigs rejected “his accidency” President Tyler for renomination, choosing Henry Clay instead. In his last bid for the presidency, Clay narrowly lost to Democrat James K. Polk.
Although his innocent idyll seems at odds with these significant moments, MacLeod (born in Alexandria, then part of the District of Columbia) was a young man when he painted his “glimpse” and could not have failed to be stirred by the atmosphere of change, even if he preferred to appear detached. MacLeod, after some ten years in New York City, returned to the capital in 1856, and lived to see the city change radically. As sectional tensions grew and the Civil War overwhelmed the country, he was there as a witness, but always at a distance, as a landscape painter.
With the war, the true pastoral note in the national landscape tradition, represented by an easy interaction between man and nature, gradually evaporated and bucolic paintings were replaced by self-conscious landscapes of introspection or heroic vistas of grandeur or apocalypse, confounding Dickens’s prediction that “such as it is, it is likely to remain.”
Washington became a populous city, which prospered in the Reconstruction era. Between 1874 and 1888, MacLeod was curator of the new Corcoran Gallery of Art, founded on a banking fortune. When he died in 1892 it was in an America transformed by the Industrial Revolution, a country polarized by extremes of wealth and poverty, a society politically reunified but spiritually at war with itself.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.