Like it or not, Civil War art is going back on governor office walls

ST. PAUL -- Six paintings of Civil War battles have survived a political battle of their own and will remain prominently displayed in the Minnesota Capitol.

ST. PAUL -- Six paintings of Civil War battles have survived a political battle of their own and will remain prominently displayed in the Minnesota Capitol.

The paintings have adorned the walls of the state Capitol’s gubernatorial suites for a century, but Gov. Mark Dayton pushed to move them as the Capitol prepares to reopen after a years-long, $310 million renovation.

Dayton didn’t have the final decision, though. That fell to the Minnesota Historical Society’s executive council. That body voted unanimously Thursday to keep the paintings, which show Minnesota soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Siege of Vicksburg, the Battle of Nashville, the Battle of Missionary Ridge, the Battle of Corinth and the capture of Little Rock.

“They’re a part of the vision for the Capitol as it was when it opened in 1905,” said Stephen Elliott, director and CEO of the Historical Society. “We did not see a compelling reason to move away from the historical integrity of having those paintings.”

The paintings will be in place in the Governor’s Reception Room and Governor’s Anteroom when the Capitol reopens to the public Jan. 3, or shortly afterward.


Dayton had urged the Historical Society to move all six Civil War paintings out of his suites to elsewhere in the Capitol.

Art in the highly visible gubernatorial suite “should better represent the full complexion of our state and a more varied perspective on history, geography and culture,” Dayton wrote in an October letter to the Historical Society’s executive council.

But a letter calling to keep the Civil War art in the Capitol from state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, provoked drama over the issue last week. Dayton walked out of a meeting of the state Capitol Preservation Commission and accused Dean of playing politics over the art.

None of that drama was present Thursday as the Historical Society made the final decision, which happened with no opposition and little debate.

Executive council member Eric Ahlness, a veteran, said he was initially sympathetic to the argument that there was too much Civil War art in the Capitol until he surveyed major Minnesota art museums and found few recent exhibits on military history.

Keeping the Civil War art prominently displayed creates a “place where people can really see our military history and internalize … why (they’re) proud to be a Minnesotan,” Ahlness said.

Dayton has argued for years that the Civil War art should be removed from the Governor’s Reception Room.

“It’s their decision to make, and I accept their decision,” Dayton said in a brief statement after the council’s vote Thursday.


Kurt BlueDog, another executive council member, said the original idea of moving the paintings had not been to slight veterans but rather to make space for new paintings of Minnesotans in other conflicts, such as World War II.

That could still happen. Though the Civil War paintings will remain, two other historic paintings will be removed from the Governor’s Reception Room: “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” and “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.” Both paintings feature 19th-century interactions between American Indians and white settlers and have been criticized by American Indians as presenting a biased and insulting perspective.

“The art that’s in there should contribute to an environment that is welcoming to everybody, where everybody feels respected,” Elliott said. “The American Indian people in Minnesota don’t feel welcomed and respected in the place with the ‘Father

Hennepin at the Falls’ … and the ‘Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.’ ”

Those two paintings will be moved to elsewhere in the Capitol and displayed with more information about their context. The Historical Society’s executive council made that decision in October following years of public discussion about those paintings.

courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

“Battle of Gettysburg,” an oil painting by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum, hangs in the Governor’s Reception Room at the state Capitol. The Minnesota Historical Society’s executive council voted unanimously Thursday to keep it and five other Civil War paintings in the gubernatorial suites.

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