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State Capitol oil painting

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Howard W. Montague, attributed. Virginia State Capitol. Oil on canvas, ca. 1860. 17 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches.

The work of an untrained artist, this painting is attributed to Howard W. Montague, a Baptist minister from Essex County, and is believed to have been painted about 1860. The painting is an important source of historical and architectural information.

Montague included in the left-hand portion of his painting a partial view of Richmond's city hall, an intriguing example of architecture in its own right. The well-known southern architect Robert Mills completed a design for "a new courthouse and town hall" in March 1816. Mills's design, captured in Montague's painting, was widely admired. One observer went so far as to declare its architecture "the most perfect in the city; even more so than the capitol."

The painting's handsome colors may be only a clever device by a self-taught artist to infuse his flat building with some semblance of three-dimensional depth, but the hues might also convey some idea of the Capitol's general appearance at the time. Period black-and-white photographs suggest that the Capitol was painted with successive schemes of contrasting colors. Perhaps this unassuming painting captured a detail otherwise lost. Moreover, the artist's use of color reflects a common architectural technique of the period. For years, the Capitol's exterior brickwork remained exposed, although by at least 1796, "to make them appear like stone," the brick walls and columns were "partially whitened with common whitewash." Later, workers further refined the structure's appearance, covering the red brick with stucco, which was then scored and painted to resemble more-expensive and more-substantial stonework.