The oil sketch Physics provides a look at industry and progress in 19th-century America. The allegorical figure of Physics, adorned in patriotic American motifs, examines a chart indicative of mechanization and navigation. White stars on a blue band decorate her cloak and a red ribbon weaves through her hair. Beside her, the ancient Roman blacksmith, Vulcan, has forged a locomotive wheel. Vulcan’s classical attributes—his tools and anvil—represent the advance of civilization. Here Vulcan is set in America’s Iron Age. Flanking the composition, artist Constantino Brumidi depicts a steamboat and locomotive bellowing vapor and smoke. These dramatic plumes announce the power of steam engine technology—a technology that was revolutionizing America. The locomotive speeds through a mountainous landscape, conquering what once was lengthy and perilous travel.
Constantino Brumidi executed this oil study for a fresco in Room S-211 of the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. A pencil sketch dated 1857 shows his initial concept for the ceiling frescoes in Room S-211. At that time, the room was designated for the Senate Library, and Brumidi proposed four lunette-shaped frescoes depicting Geography, History, Print, and Philosophy. Brumidi's work, however, was interrupted. He completed one lunette of Geography in 1858, but was not commissioned to execute the room's remaining three lunettes until nearly a decade later in 1867. By then, the room had changed occupants and was established as the Senate Post Office. Brumidi changed Print and Philosophy to Telegraph and Physics. The oil sketch Physics is dated to the 1860s, presumably around the time Brumidi submitted new estimates to resume the work in 1862 and again in 1866, but prior to completing the fresco in 1867.
At age 13, Constantino Brumidi entered Rome's prestigious Accademia di San Luca and spent 14 years studying drawing, painting, and sculpture. He earned important commissions and awards during his career in Italy in the 1830s and 1840s. When Brumidi immigrated to America in 1852, his rigorous academic training and professional experience gave him a distinct advantage: Brumidi was one of the few artists in the United States who was skilled at designing murals for large, complex spaces and who was proficient at painting in fresco, a challenging but traditional medium that was desired for the murals at the U.S. Capitol.
In keeping with the practices of his academic training, Brumidi often prepared meticulous, detailed sketches to scale in pencil as one of the preliminary steps to creating a mural. Brumidi would then work up preparatory studies, typically in oil on canvas, of the proposed scenes. The preparatory studies would be submitted for review to officials in charge of the decoration of the Capitol.
Once the proposed mural in a preparatory study was approved, Brumidi would enlarge the scene from the study to a full scale rendering on oversize paper, traditionally called a cartoon. The outlines of the images could then be transferred from the cartoon onto the wall or ceiling. Brumidi used the details worked out in the studies–such as coloring or shading–as his guide when executing a mural. Many of the preparatory studies for Brumidi’s work in the Senate wing of the Capitol are in the Senate collection.