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.
The portrait collection grew slowly over the next hundred years with sporadic donations and bequests until 1899 when an appropriation was made to acquire the likenesses of former governors, resulting in twenty new additions. Over the years, these were joined by portraits of other governors of Massachusetts Bay as well as the Plymouth Bay Colony (merged under the second charter of 1692), royal governors of the Province of Massachusetts who served until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and governors elected under the Constitution, beginning with John Hancock. Now, all but seven of heads of state are represented, along with other legislative and civic leaders.
The collection also grew during the nineteenth century with the acquisition of significant sculptures, both commissioned and donated. The memorial statue of George Washington, installed in Doric Hall in 1827, was the first monumental marble sculpture in Boston. Several others followed at mid-century, including the Daniel Webster (1859) and Horace Mann (1865), two of the oldest outdoor monuments in Boston, as well as others by notable sculptors Martin Milmore and Thomas Ball.
By 1930 the art collection had grown by 300% and included the acquisition of paintings by all leading artists of the Boston School, three major monuments by Daniel Chester French, and seven wall murals – the earliest of which are among the first murals in a public building to depict scenes of American history. Plaques and bas-reliefs became an important form of commemoration during the twentieth century, and there are now more than sixty on display. The collection continues to grow with portraits of elected officials and memorials added annually.
The decorative and architectural arts also began to play an important role when the American Renaissance-style extension designed by Charles Brigham was constructed in the late 1890s. Carved marble and plaster decoration, ironwork, and mosaic were incorporated throughout the building, enriching every surface. Stained glass windows were planned for all ceremonial spaces, and large expanses of wall and ceiling designed to receive murals. All were set off by a monumental “Memorial Hall” constructed in the center of the capitol to honor the Commonwealth’s Civil War veterans and where the fragile battle flags returned shortly after the close of the war in 1865 were placed on display in glass cases around the perimeter of the room.
Most collections are on view on the second, third and fourth floors of the capitol, and may be visited whenever the State House is open to the public. The flags, joined over time with colors from later conflicts, are held in archival storage.