HELENA – The Montana State Capitol currently holds the 66th Legislature, the Governor’s Office, the Office of the Secretary of State and some of the most impressive pieces of artwork in the state.
The Capitol houses a total of 34 murals and eight sculptures honoring the state’s people and their heritage.
During the construction of the main building, the state founders wanted its design and interior to reflect the values and aspirations of the Treasure State.
“They were very insistent that they wanted Montana’s history portrayed,” said Kirby Lambert, Outreach and Interpretation Program Manager at Montana Historical Society. “They wanted important aspects of Montana’s stories on the walls and displayed in a manner that everyone could understand.”
Watching over the rotunda are four archetypal figures representing the roles of the first Montanans.
Montana’s first State Governor Joseph Toole enlisted the Cincinnati, OH firm of F. Pedretti’s Sons to paint the figures for the Capitol’s opening in 1902.
Each of the four guardians is inspired by influential Montanans. The Miner resembles Henry Finnis Edgar, one of the men to first discover gold in the state and the Furtraper resembles Jim Bridger who has been called one of the foremost frontiersmen of the American Old West.
“Governor Toole gave specific instructions,” noted Lambert. “The Indian Chief, for example, is Chief Charlo, the Salish chief who resisted removal of his people from the Bitterroot. For the cowboy, Toole didn’t say a specific cowboy he just said to look at the work of Charlie Russell.”
A decade later the Legislature would commission Russell, along with R. E. DeCamp and E. S. Paxson to produce murals by Montanans for the Capitol.
In the House Chambers is Russell’s Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross’ Hole. The piece is the cowboy artist’s largest work ever produced at an astonishing 20 feet by 25 feet.
“The title says it’s about Lewis and Clark but the painting is really about the Indians,” said Lambert, “And what a majestic statement that is about the importance of Montana’s first inhabitants.”
In the Grand Staircase landing are two of Montana’s most influential citizens immortalized in bronze.
Standing at the east is Wilbur Fisk Sanders who was one of Montana’s first prosecuting attorneys, an organizer of the Vigilantes and served as one of Montana’s first U.S. senators.
To the west is a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage, Jeannette Rankin who became the first woman to serve in the United States Congress.
The most recent addition to the capitol artwork was installed in 2015. The Women’s History Mural was produced by Hadley Ferguson of Missoula.
The two panels were established by Senate Bill 59 in the 62nd Legislature and sponsored by former State Senator Lynda Moss, and former Representative Diane Sands.
All funds for the mural were raised through private donations.
Sands, now a State Senator from Missoula, said one of the most important parts of the mural is that it represents all Montanan women.
“It’s not just about the few people we think of being exceptional,” explained Sands. “We have Jeannette Rankin’s statue down there, that’s great. But the history of Montana is made up of the history really ordinary people doing ordinary things. Whether that’s homesteading, whether that’s starting a small business and running it as we see [in the mural]. Those are the activities that show what it was what it is and what it will be in the future.”
Governor Joseph Toole once said, “[The Capitol] will be to the state what the homestead is to the citizen. What the fireside is to the family…. Here should repose the honor and conscience of the state by which its citizenship shall be judged and measured and its glory achieved and preserved.”
The artwork of the Capitol serves as more than decoration.
The works help to preserve the ideals and hopes of Montanans in “The People’s House.” Click here to learn more about all the artworks that are in the Capitol building.
-John Riley reporting for MTN News