Painting Michigan's Muses
“I had a decoration to do for the Michigan Parliament: there were twelve
colossal figures to be painted on canvas to put up on the wall. They
represented the virtues and the sciences . . . It was an urgent job.”
A high point in Juglaris’s career as decorative artist in the United States came on the heels of his residential commissions. He received an invitation to execute a series of monumental muses, inspirational figures drawn from classical Greek and Roman art, for an iconic statehouse in America’s Midwest. Complete with a commanding dome and soaring interior rotunda, the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan was a trend-setting government building of the late Victorian era. It was inspired by the federal capitol in Washington, D.C., which was lavishly decorated with frescos from the brush of another Italian artist, Constantino Brumidi, who had completed his work two decades earlier at the end of the Civil War.
Beating out a number of other competitors for the Michigan commission, Juglaris created eight “colossal figures” on individual canvases, each symbolizing “the virtues and the sciences,” different fields of endeavor important to the progress of a state then celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Juglaris completed his commission on schedule. The eight muses were installed in September 1886, the same month that the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in the New York Harbor.
Sadly, Juglaris’s Michigan State Capitol project coincided with one of the worst years of labor upheaval in American history. The turmoil culminated in May 1886 with Chicago’s “Haymarket Square Riot” in which an anarchist threw dynamite at police breaking up a labor rally. A group of foreign-born anarchist leaders were arrested and charged in the deaths of seven policemen and the wounding of sixty more. The pending trial and resulting convictions captured newspaper headlines across the United States for months on end. The episode spawned a national wave of xenophobia and led to legislation in Michigan and elsewhere prohibiting non-citizens from working on publicly-funded projects, like state capitol buildings.
In this hostile environment it was suddenly awkward, if not impossible, for state officials to acknowledge Juglaris as the artist of the Capitol muses. Indeed, Juglaris, who remained an Italian citizen, never received public acknowledgment for his Michigan Capitol commission. Without mentioning Juglaris by name or providing the slightest biographical detail, a Lansing newspaper simply described him as “the best artist of his kind.” It took more than a century and careful research before Juglaris was finally recognized as the artist of the muses in the Michigan Capitol.
Italian Artists in America – A Rich Capitol Legacy
Tommaso Juglaris’s commission to paint eight monumental muses for the rotunda of the Michigan State Capitol was very much in keeping the rich legacy of earlier Italian artists and sculptors at our nation’s seat of government in Washington, D.C. The roster of Italian artists and sculptors who helped decorate and embellish the domed Federal Capitol Building in the first half of the nineteenth century includes Enrico Causici, Antonio Capellano, Luigi Perisco, Francis Vincenti, Francesco Irdella, Giovanni Madrei, and Constantino Brumidi. As a muralist, however, Brumidi’s contribution was the most extensive. Today, he is the Capitol artist most remembered and acknowledged.
Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880) arrived in the United States in 1852 as a political exile from his Italian homeland. Little more than two years later he was retained by the United States government to fresco in Pompeiian style the newly expanded Capitol building. Brumidi continued to labor on murals for the Capitol until the day before his death in 1880. His fresco painting fused American history with ancient mythology—most typically and famously in The Apotheosis of Washington which decorates the vast Capitol rotunda. It depicts America’s first president being assumed into the heavens to join the pantheon of the gods.
Like Juglaris in the 1880s, Brumidi faced hostility in the 1850s from those who felt that a native-born artist should have been rewarded with the Capitol commission. The politics of the moment was dominated by the nativist and anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Perhaps influenced by Know-Nothing rhetoric, the New York Tribune on May 17, 1858 complained: “The best artists of the country, with scarcely an exception, have offered their services and asked to be employed upon the Capitol. Without an exception their applications have been rejected, and the work of the decoration is going rapidly forward under the direction of an Italian whose reputation is little better than that of a skillful scene painter, and who employs under him a crowd of sixty or seventy foreign painters, chiefly Italians and Frenchmen.” [Barbara A. Wolanin, ed., Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol, 93] Neither Brumidi nor those supervising the Capitol’s decorative project were deterred by such criticism. Nevertheless, as a final answer to those who contended that he was unfit to serve as a Capitol artist Brumidi felt compelled to sign one of his frescos: “C. Brumidi, Artist Citizen of the United States.” Unfortunately, as someone who continued to retain his Italian citizenship, foregoing a more completely Americanized identity, Juglaris could not offer the spirited retort that Brumidi did in confronting prejudice as an immigrant artist. Unlike Brumidi, Juglaris was not a political exile: there were no barriers preventing him from ultimately returning to Italy. Not clear is whether a friendlier and more welcoming reception for Juglaris as an artist and muralist in Michigan and elsewhere would have led him to follow Brumidi’s example in adopting full American citizenship.