The State House’s Historic Murals

Bostonians tend to be familiar with the city’s outstanding art museums, whether large or small. What many people don’t realize, however, is that other buildings in the city also contain noteworthy art. These include the Boston Public Library’s Central Branch in Copley Square, the John Adams Courthouse in Pemberton Square, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.

Walking Right on By

Now, many folks I know have never set foot in the Museum of Fine Arts or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway. As an art lover, this astonishes me but everyone has their own likes and priorities. When it concerns buildings that aren’t museums, it’s simple to walk on by if you have no reason to go inside.

Massachusetts State House, Charles Bulfinch, politics, dome, Beacon Hill

Massachusetts State House

Yet three of these buildings are open to the public and display fine art collections that belong to the people of Massachusetts. Even the Athenaeum, which is a private library, opens its first floor to the public and offers guided tours of the rest of the building. You will see a small part of their collection of 25,000 works of art.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time wandering around the Massachusetts State House and take one of their docent-led tours. It was an eye-opening experience because there was simply so much artwork to see.

History of the Art Collection

The website tells us that:

“The Massachusetts State House Art Collection dates back to the eighteenth century and is one of the oldest public art collections in the country. Over 300 artworks commemorate historical events and honor elected, military and civic leaders who have contributed to the formation, development, and defense of the Commonwealth and the nation.

“The collection originated at the Old State House in Boston, where portraits of early governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were acquired to replace royal portraits that had been destroyed during the War for Independence. When the “new” State House, designed by Charles Bulfinch, opened on Beacon Hill in 1798, this small group of paintings and the “Sacred Cod” were transferred and placed in one of the four primary spaces of the new capitol.”

From there, the collection grew over the years and now has over 300 works of art.

The Art of the State House

Tea Party, Nurses Hall, Massachusetts State House, Robert Reid

Boston Tea Party

Works of art in and on the grounds of the Massachusetts State House include:

  • Paintings
  • Sculpture
  • Murals
  • Stained glass
  • Plaques and tablets
  • Battle flags

Portraits of all the state’s governor line the walls of the corridors and extend into the reception room of the governor’s office. You may not find the older, very staid, portraits of interest but more recent ones have style, color and life.

A governor’s portrait is only painted after he or she leaves office. Governor Baker’s portrait has not yet been added to the gallery of his predecessors. That also means no woman’s face will grace the State House walls for many years.

The State House Murals

I particularly like the murals, which can be found mainly in several locations. The House Chamber’s murals commemorate important events in colonial Boston’s history. Notice the long-winded titles below, which seem appropriate for a room where so much hot air can be expended.

Return of the Colors to the Custody of the Commonwealth, Massachusetts State House, Henry Oliver Walker, Edward E. Simmons, mural, Civil War

Return of the Colors to the Custody of the Commonwealth

“Defense” plays a large part in the subject matter of these paintings, which memorialize scenes from the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, as well as other conflicts. America’s colonialist history is also on full view. These murals reflect the sentiments of their day with unabashed patriotism.

While many paintings glorify war—as is so often the case—and the heroic deeds of our soldiers, they are vibrant and packed with action. I found myself drawn to the “Return of the Colors to the Custody of the Commonwealth” because it commemorates one of only three times the front door of the State House is opened. In this case, it shows the Massachusetts regimental flags re-entering the State House after the Civil War.

House Chamber

Artist: Albert Herter, 1942

  • “John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin Drafting the Constitution of 1780”
  • “Revolt against Autocratic Government in Massachusetts: Arrest of Governor Andros”
  • “John Hancock Proposing the Bill of Rights to the Federal Constitution”
  • “Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts: Public Repentance of Judge Samuel Sewall for his Actions in the Witchcraft Trials”
  • “Governor Winthrop at Salem Bringing the Charter of the Bay Colony to Massachusetts”

Main Stair Hall

  • “Decoration of the Colors of the 104th Infantry” – Floor 3
  • “Ninety-Fourth Infantry Division Memorial” – Floor 4

Main Staircase Ceiling

Artist: Frank Hill Smith, 1894

  • “Samuel Adams”
  • “James Otis”
  • “John Hancock”
  • “Joseph Warren”

Memorial Hall

Artists: Henry Oliver Walker and Edward E. Simmons, 1902 and 1903

  • “Battle at Concord Bridge”
  • “John Eliot Preaching to the Indians”
  • “Pilgrims on the Mayflower”
  • “Return of the Colors to the Custody of the Commonwealth”
  • Nine Notable Women of Boston, Ellen Lanyon, Simmons College, Massachusetts State House

    Nine Notable Women of Boston

Nurses Hall

Artist: Robert Reid, 1901 and 1904

  • “Boston Tea Party”
  • “James Otis Arguing the Writs of Assistance in the Old Towne House”
  • “Paul Revere’s Ride”

Third Floor

Landing in Porto Rico, Massachusetts State House, mural, Richard Andrew

Landing in Porto Rico 1861

Artist: Richard Andrew, 1927 and 1931

  • “Decoration of the Colors of the 104th Infantry”
  • “1918 Veterans of the Sixth Regiment Memorial”
    • “Introduction and Record of Duty I”
    • “Marching Through Baltimore”
    • “1861 Landing in Porto Rico”
    • “1898 Record of Duty II”

Floor 3 Corridor

Artist: Edward Brodney, 1936 and 1938

  • “Columbia Knighting Her War Disabled”
  • “The War Mothers”

Fourth Floor

Artist: William Foley, 2002

  • “94th Infantry Division Memorial”
  • “Nine Notable Women of Boston” — Ellen Lanyon (On loan from Simmons University)

See The Murals for Yourself

You can check out these paintings (and more) on your own or review them in situ online. But nothing beats standing in front of a painting yourself. You simply can’t get the same impact, either artistic or emotional, from a reproduction. And my trusty iPhone certainly doesn’t do them justice.

General Hooker Statue, Daniel Chester French, Massachusetts State House, Beacon Street

“Fighting Joe Hooker”

You can see the murals for yourself on any day that the State House is open to the public. Go right in as if you own the place. Because you do. Here’s how:

  1. Go in the Hooker Entrance on Beacon Street
  2. Pass through the security screen
  3. Turn right – this will take you directly into the part of the State House with all the artwork. You will find most of the collections on the second, third and fourth floors
  4. Take a tour. It lasts an hour. And it’s free.

You will be amazed at how beautiful the inside of the State House is.

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