It’s the 150th anniversary today of the United States signing a treaty to buy Alaska from Russia. Or, since many Alaskans dispute the land was “owned” by either country, bought Russia’s claim on Alaska.
In Washington, D.C., the occasion is being marked with ceremony at the State Department and a concert at the National Archives. But did the treaty that shaped modern Alaska leave any mark on the city where it was signed?
Washington is a city of national monuments, none of which honor William Seward. There’s no marker on the spot where the secretary of State signed the purchase treaty with Russia. A few miles away, near the Capitol, There is a Seward Square. It’s not easily recognized, even when you’re standing on it.
The “square” is criss-crossed by streets, creating a collection of grassy patches, cut up by eight lanes of traffic.
Walk a few block to the Capitol and go inside, walk all the way to the end of a certain hallway. Right by the elevator, look up, and there it is, on a vaulted ceiling,
“Alaskan Purchase 1867.”
It turns out there’s a reason this mural is at the very end of the hallway.
“Well, I would describe it as a figurative style,” said Michele Cohen, curator in the office of the Architect of the Capitol.
She said the Alaska mural was painted by artist Jeffrey Greene, but he had several constraints.
“He’s trying to be very consistent with the style that defines Allyn Cox, which would be called sort of an academic, figurative style,” she said.
Allyn Cox was the artist first hired to decorate this side of the Capitol. He planned a series of murals depicting the nation’s history. Cohen says Cox wanted his halls to fit in with the 19th century murals elsewhere in the building. The Cox murals look something like old botanical illustrations, or Audubon prints, but showing people and places rather than plants and birds.
“We’re standing in one of the corridors that constitute really the Cox Corridors. And it’s known as the Westward Expansion Corridor,” Cohen said.
Cohen points out that the murals are chronological: Exploration, Daniel Boone, the Louisiana Purchase. And at the very end, the acquisitions of Alaska and Hawaii.
Cox, though, died before he could paint this corridor. Years later, Greene took it on. Only by then, it was the 1990s and ideas about Western expansion and Manifest Destiny had evolved. Cohen said Greene wanted his work to reflect the understanding that the West wasn’t empty land before the settlers arrived.
“He thought about the iconography and the content that was part of the original design and he wanted to make it a more inclusive mural, and a more nuanced historical narrative about westward expansion,” Cohen said.
It’s subtle, but it’s there. Greene painted Lewis and Clark gazing out over a Native American village, rather than untrammeled wilderness.
For Alaska, Greene added a person in a kayak to the map. The guy’s boat is nearly as large as the Aleutian Chain. Greene also included the names of Alaska towns and cities. As the curator tells it, that’s how the artist met the challenge of honoring 19th century concepts from a modern perspective on history.
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