In 1939, the United States government awarded what was then the most expensive artistic commission in its history to Howard Chandler Christy, saddling the Capitol with a most curious white elephant.
Christy, well known as a magazine illustrator, was an unlikely artist to be awarded the contract to commemorate the Constitution, which had marked its 150th anniversary two years before. “He was a society artist and illustrator more than a painter committed to public art,” says Michele Cohen, curator for the Architect of the Capitol. Indeed, Christy’s illustrations in Scribner’s and Harper’s so often featured an idealized, blandly pretty young woman that the archetype became known as a “Christy Girl,” an association that had earned him the position of sole judge for the inaugural Miss America pageant in 1921.
But Christy had recently made portraits of Vice President John N. Garner and Speaker of the House William Bankhead, two men central in tapping the artist to create this enormous new work—a 20- by 30-foot canvas, weighing 1,700 pounds in its frame, that depicts the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
Meant for a place of honor in the Capitol, the canvas was too large for any open walls—a quandary, because it had to remain in the Capitol according to its government commission. Christy squeezed every signatory into the frame. He sought out 18th- and 19th-century portraits on which to base each likeness and borrowed period clothing from the Smithsonian for at least one of his models to wear. The model posing as George Washington wore the president’s own shoe buckles and held Washington’s pocket watch. Art critics and others disparaged the painting’s frothy style. “Nothing more than a blown-up illustration,” one critic said. “Our Founding Fathers are embarrassed.” Today, the work, for which Christy received a whopping $30,000, remains something of a joke among art historians.
Soon, the white elephant of a painting was relegated to an out-of-the-way staircase in the Capitol, largely hidden from public view. It has remained there ever since.