The Mysterious Painter of the Michigan State Capital Muses

Written by Tonya Blust | Michigan 101

F or about 125 years, eight painted figures have stared down at visitors from inside the state capital dome; for most of those years, no one knew exactly who had painted them. The figures, known as the muses, each represent a different means (i.e., agriculture, art, astronomy/science, commerce, education, industry, justice, and law) through which Michigan citizens can prosper and brighten the state’s future.

A few of the Capitol dome's muses.

A few of the Capitol dome’s muses.

The paintings are absolutely gorgeous, and for years, historians believed they might have been the work of Lewis Ives, an artist who has other pieces in the Capitol. Then, in 1992, a visitor named Geoffrey Drutchas entered the building, looking for works by a nineteenth-century Italian artist. Drutchas’ inquiry led to an investigation that ultimately revealed the paintings’ true creator. But more on that later; first, a quick background on how the muses became a part of the Capitol in the first place.

The current state Capitol opened in 1879. For the first few years of its existence, the Capitol’s walls were bare, as the state couldn’t spare any money for artwork. Eventually, the state had extra cash, so the legislature commissioned William Wright, owner of a Detroit decorating company, to handle interior design duties. The Capitol’s architect, Elijah Myers, said that he wanted allegorical paintings (in other words, paintings whose subjects look like one thing, but represent something else) to appear above the Capitol rotunda. That’s how the Capitol ended up with its muses. At first glance, the women in the paintings that Wright delivered to the Capitol are simply figures from Greek mythology; however, if a viewer looks at the paintings closely, he or she finds that each muse holds or is surrounded by items that represent a specific aspect of Michigan’s economy and culture.

Wright never revealed who created the paintings, and as years passed, their origin became even more mysterious. The paintings had been signed with a symbol that looked like a stick figure, and no one at the Capitol knew what–or who–the symbol represented.

Symbol on the Capitol's muse paintings

Symbol on the Capitol’s muse paintings

Then Drutchas entered the picture. (No pun intended.) The Taylor resident was a fan of nineteenth-century Italian painter Tommaso Juglaris, who had lived in Boston during the late 1800s. Drutchas read that some of Juglaris’s work was in the Michigan State Capitol, so he took a trip to Lansing. His query raised a few eyebrows, as staffers had never heard Juglaris’s name attached to the muses. However, after some research (including a trip to Italy that Drutchas took in 2000, during which he found the stick figure on paintings that Juglaris was known to have painted), as well as the 2003 discovery of sketches that Juglaris had made of four of the muses, Capitol staff could officially state that Tommaso Juglaris had painted the dome’s artwork. (FYI, the “stick figure” signature is actually a combination of Juglaris’s first and last initials.)

Tommaso Juglaris

Tommaso Juglaris

How did Juglaris’s work go undetected for so long? At the time he painted the Capitol muses, only American citizens could work on public buildings and projects. Though Juglaris lived in Boston, he was an Italian citizen, so his work for the state Capitol was a no-no. Wright, who had commissioned the paintings from Juglaris, got around that fact simply by stating that the paintings came from his company; consequently, while Juglaris got paid for his work, he didn’t get official credit–at least not until over 125 years later, when a visitor’s curiosity wrote a chapter for Juglaris in the Capitol history books.