Controversial MN Capitol art resurfaces in new exhibit

Two original Minnesota Capitol paintings that some view as offensive have been relocated to the building's third floor. Tim Pugmire|MPR News

Two paintings long-criticized for inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans are again on public display at the Minnesota Capitol but in a less prominent location and with more contextual information about the subject matter.

​The Minnesota Historical Society moved the paintings -- “Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony” by Douglas Volk and “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” by Frank Millet -- to a new third floor space. The paintings, which some deemed offensive, previously hung in the Governor’s Reception Room.

Joe Horse Capture, the society’s director of American Indian Initiatives, said the accompanying information provided by historians, arts experts, Ojibwe and Dakota community members and settler descendants will help Capitol visitors view the paintings from different perspectives.

“It’s a very complicated history,” Horse Capture said. “When one has a painting that’s a snapshot of an interpretation of an event, there’s often much more to the story.”

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Last year, the art subcommittee of the Capitol Preservation Commission called for relocating the paintings after conferring with tribal leaders.

Concerns highlighted in the panel’s report about the Father Hennepin painting included its depiction of a “semi-nude” Native American woman and its use of “symbolic religious overtones.” The primary complaint about the Treaty painting is with the historic event and its negative impact on Native Americans.

The paintings are featured in an exhibit titled “Reconciling History: Views on Two Minnesota Paintings.” The exhibit officially opens next Friday, Aug. 11, as part of the grand opening celebration for the recently-completed Capitol renovation.

Jennifer Jones, the society’s senior director of collection and research services, said the paintings had the effect of murals in the Governor’s Reception room, where they were hung high on opposite walls. They are now in glass frames, at eye level on the same wall.

“It really gives you a completely different experience of looking at them,” Jones said. “They in some ways look vastly larger in this space.”