This large, circular drawing (1959-69-9), nearly three feet in height and width, is a study for a glass mosaic installed at the Wisconsin State Capital Building in Madison, Wisconsin.  Designed by Kenyon Cox (American, 1856-1919), this drawing was probably one of several preparatory works that Cox made before cutting, arranging, and gluing tiny glass tesserae, or pieces, to translate the drawn design into a checkered glass surface, forming the mosaic.

Cox’s mosaics for the four pendentives at the Wisconsin State Capital Building measure about twelve feet in height by twenty-four in length, thus his drawn design for “Justice” is a scaled down version of the actual mosaic.  Alongside “Justice,” in which a female figure balances a scale, holding one side in each hand, the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt has drawings for the three other mosaics at the building: LegislationGovernment, and Liberty.  The first three themes, personified by classical figures, correspond to the three branches of American of American government: Judicial, Legislative, and Executive, while the the fourth, Liberty, is the highest virtue of the previous three.

At a time of energetic municipal architecture projects across the United States, Kenyon Cox was celebrated for his prolific career as a lecturer, art critic, painter, and in particular as a muralist.  Writer George B. Rose, in an obituary for Cox from the literary magazine, The Sewanee Review, highlights Cox’s contributions to public buildings: “his great civic decorations, most of which are idealistic presentations of the principles of good government and of the blessings of the arts and sciences, adorn our public buildings from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and everywhere they are a joy to the eye, a delight to the soul, an inspiration to a richer and a nobler life.[1]”   As Rose makes clear, the stakes for public art are high: great civic work does not just decorate, it lifts thoughts and it inspires.


Caroline O’Connell is the Collections Assistant in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design  Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


[1] George B. Rose, “Kenyon Cox,” The Sewanee Review 1 (1919): 368.

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