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Periodical Volume 3 Issue 1 SIB Art Room

The Art Room in the Castle, Fulfilling a Neglected Mandate

By Richard Stamm

In the last issue of this publication, Carly Bond outlined several of the Castle’s assets which are to be protected during the upcoming total renovation of the building, among which is the Art Room’s plaster frieze.1 The Art Room and its plaster frieze are at this time 118 years old and are both considered worthy of special treatment. This brief history of the Art Room’s creation and original purpose will help explain that historical significance.  

The Gallery of Art  

“…it is well to recall the undoubted fact that it was intended by Congress to be a curator of the national art, and that this function has never been forgotten, though often in abeyance,” (Samuel P. Langley, 1896 report to the Board of Regents).

The 1846 legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution directed the Board of Regents to erect a building, “…to house suitable rooms or halls, for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale, of objects of natural history, including a geological and mineralogical cabinet; also a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and the necessary lecture rooms….” 2

While the natural history and science collections flourished under the Institution’s first two secretaries, the Smithsonian’s nascent art collection languished during the Institution’s first four decades. 

Ostensibly to satisfy the mandate for a gallery of art, a large collection of prints and engravings was purchased in 1849 from Vermont congressman George Perkins Marsh (1801-82) thus becoming the Smithsonian’s first collection. 3 Initially intended to be part of the Gallery of Art, the Marsh Collection was instead housed in the Smithsonian’s library which at the time was in the West Wing of the building. 4   

1853 printed drawing of the Smithsonian Library Room.
Figure 1. The Smithsonian Library Room, print from The Illustrated News, Nov. 12, 1853. The portraits and scenes of the everyday life of American Indians by John Mix Stanley hung salon-style in the library were regarded as “ethnological” rather than art.


Charles Coffin Jewett (1816–68), the Smithsonian’s librarian believed that acquiring a proper art collection for the Institution would be impossible. "Engraving seems to be the only branch of the fine arts, which we can, for the present, cultivate. …The formation of a gallery of the best paintings is, in this country, almost hopeless." However, over the next decades the paintings and sculptures transferred from the National Institute upon its dissolution were obtained to comprise a meager Gallery of Art. 6

Interior image of the south-facing west range showing sculptures, columns, and decorative railings.
Figure 2. Sculpture from the defunct National Institute in the south side-aisle of the West Range, ca. 1863.
Interior image of the north-facing west range showing sculptures on pedestals lining the wall with hanging portraits.
Figure 3. Sculpture and paintings from the defunct National Institute in the north side-aisle of the West Range, ca. 1863.

After the devastating fire of 1865 which destroyed a large portion of the Castle, the art collections were removed from the building for safekeeping. 7 Most of the Marsh collection was sent to the Library of Congress while the sculptures and paintings went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art later to be joined by remnants of the Marsh collection which had initially remained in the building. 8  

Action to retrieve the loaned artworks to fulfill the Smithsonian’s mandate for a Gallery of Art was deferred until 1896 when then Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley (1834-1906) stated, “… I have thought it might be desirable for the Regents to take action looking to the reclamation of the engravings, etchings, and other works of art. This building has since been made fireproof, and recent changes have given it means of properly caring for these collections.” 9 A resolution to that end was introduced and adopted at that meeting. 10 

The Art Room and Frieze 

By 1899, a special room for the care of the engravings and other fine artworks was in the process of being constructed in the Castle. 11 The architectural firm of Hornblower and Marshall was contracted to design the room and its furnishings which were initially completed in 1900.

Interior of the Art Room with a central table, and other decorative details.
Figure 4. The Art Room, second floor, East Wing, ca. 1900. Several prints from the Marsh Collection were framed and hung in the room.

Following the Neo-Classical aesthetic of the time, the architects designed tables, chairs, bookcases, special print viewing cases, and the fireplace surround, all in delicately carved quarter-sawn oak. Further enhancing the décor, were three plaster casts of panels from the Parthenon Frieze mounted on the south wall above the door. The use of casts of Classical sculpture to decorate interiors was a very popular trend at the time, especially for educational facilities. 12 The casts were purchased from Louisa Castelvecchi (1857-1926) owner of the firm L. Castelvecchi & Co., New York. 13 

Two of the Castelvecchi panels depicted preparations for the procession at the end of the Panathenaic festival and flanked the third panel with three seated figures identified as Poseidon, Apollo, and Demeter. The Panathenaic festival was the most important festival in ancient Greece, believed by some to have been the observance of the birthday of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. 14 

In late 1902, eighteen additional casts of the Parthenon Frieze, also depicting scenes from the festival, were purchased from P.P. Caproni & Brother, Boston [Pietro Paulo and Emilio] to completely encircle the room. 15

Interior of the Art Room showing the decorative frieze around the top perimeter of the walls.
Figure 5. Art Room, second floor, East Wing, ca. 1903. A series of photographs, copies of famous master portraits published by Adolphe Braun (1811-77) replaced the Marsh Collection prints.

Attesting to the quality of the panels, Caproni’s 1902 catalogue stated that, “All of our casts are from imported models, made directly from the originals, which is the secret of excellence, apart from the perfection of workmanship in reproduction.” During installation of the new panels, the three Castelvecchi panels were relocated elsewhere within the frieze; the two procession panels remained intact, but the panel depicting Poseidon, Apollo, and Demeter was cut to fit above the window on the north side of the room.

Comparison image of the original frieze panel and the restored panel.
Figure 6. The Castelvecchi panel “reconstructed”.

Several other panels were cut to fit around the room’s windows and doors, but perhaps the most important one was the peplos folding scene. The peplos, a garment worn like a shawl by women of ancient Greece, was presented to the cult statue of Athena at the culmination of the procession.

Comparison image of the original frieze panel and the restored panel.
Figure 7. The Paplos panel “reconstructed”.

The Art Room continued to house the collection of prints and engravings until about 1963, when the graphics arts collections were moved to the newly completed Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). By 1972, when the space was converted for office use, only the frieze remained as a reminder of the room’s historic function. However, over the following 45 years several original pieces of furniture have been located and restored to the room and a complete restoration of the oak fireplace surround was undertaken.

Modern image of the Art Room interior.
Figure 8. The Art Room, second floor, East Wing, 2011, photograph by Eric Long.



Image of the Art Room fireplace and wooden surround with tile inset.
Figure 9. The restored fireplace surround in the Art Room, 2017.

In November 2023, in preparation for the building’s renovation, the panels were removed, crated, and stored for future conservation and eventual reinstallation in the Art Room. 


Secretary Langley “valued artworks for their own sake and encouraged an enhanced role for aesthetic interests at the Smithsonian”. 16 His creation of the Art Room in the Castle served as a renewed impetus for the Smithsonian to expand as a collector of fine art. 

"The old name of the collections was the 'Gallery of Art,' a title which seems almost too ambitious for the present collections of the Institution, though it is to be hoped that this designation will be justified by their future increase. These have been placed by me in a room specially fitted up for that purpose (the Art Room).,"  (Samuel P. Langley, 1900 report to the Board of Regents). 

[1] Preservation Periodical, Summer-2023 Volume 2 Issue 2, “Protecting the Castle’s Built Artifacts”.

[2] An Act to Establish The "Smithsonian Institution" for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge Among Men. As finally adopted and made into law, August 10, 1846. SEC. 5.

[3] George Perkins Marsh (1801-82), representative from Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1848 to 1849, was appointed to the Board of Regents on 22 December 1847. Marsh had amassed a large and valuable collection including such masters as Dürer, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci, as well as folios of old Italian and German masters. The collection was described in the Annual Report for 1850, 29-30.

[4] Helena Wright, The First Smithsonian Collection, 11.

[5] Smithsonian Annual Report for 1850, 30.

[6] Dissolution of the National Institute commenced in 1857 and continued into the next decade.

[7] Annual Report for 1900, 18-19.

[8] Helena Wright, 99.

[9] Journal of Proceedings of the Board of Regents, SI AR 1896, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898, XIII – XVI.

[10] A dispute erupted regarding ownership of the Marsh Collection between SI and LOC and it appears that none of the prints in LOC were returned at that time. However, about sixty prints were retrieved from the Corcoran (Helena Wright, 144-145 and 148).

[11] AR 1899, 16.

[12] The Fine Arts, Some Important Artistic Decorations in Schools and Colleges, Radcliffe Adorns Herself, Boston Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, July 4, 1894.

[13] For Castelvecchi: S.I. Disbursement Journal, 1898 – 1900, SIA RU-100, Box 105, p.83, line 675: “L. Castelvecchi and Co. 10-21-99, 30.60.

For installation: SIA, RU-31, Office of the Secretary, 1891-1906, Incoming Correspondence. Letter from S.P. Langley to the Office of Hornblower and Marshall, Architects, November 11, 1899.

Founded in about 1850 by Gaetano Rigali (1802-67), in 1870 Raphaello Castelvecchi (1841-79) purchased the firm, renaming it R. Castelvecchi & Co. After Raphaello’s death, ownership of the company was assumed by one Constantino Ginacchio. Sometime between 1884 and 1888 Raphaello’s widow Louisa Caselvecchi (1857-1926) acquired the company. Louisa was sole owner of the company until 1907 [Trow’s NYC Directory for the year ending July 1907: the company was listed as Castelvecchi & Co., Casts 225 4th Ave.].

[14] Allan Marquand, Arthur L. Frothingham, JR., A Text-Book of the History of Sculpture. Longmans, Green, and Co., New York. 1911.

[15] S.I. Disbursement Journal, 1901 – 1903, SIA RU-100, Box 106, p.81, line 965: “P.P. Caproni & Bro. 10-03-02, $162.75.”

The company began in ca 1880 with brothers John, Raphaello, and Pietro Caproni, listed as “Plaster Image Makers” in the Boston City Directory of that year. By 1892, the company partnership consisted of brothers Pietro (1862-1928) and Emilio (1870-1952) Caproni, “Statuary Makers.”

[16] Helena Wright, 145-147.

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