Heroic America: James Daugherty's Mural Drawings from the 1930s

by Rebecca E. Lawton




While living in England, Daugherty read the work of the American poet and prose writer, Walt Whitman. His admiration for Whitman's poetry, especially in Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas, became all-consuming. As he later wrote, "Leaves of Grass got under my skin and into my bones."48 Whitman's poetry projected America as a nation posed on the threshold of a dynamic future, a nation far different from the antiquated European civilizations Daugherty had encountered abroad and far more romantic in spirit than the atavistic mediaevalism Brangwyn had exposed him to in art school. Whitman's ebullient message of individual freedom revealed the romantic spirit of the American character. The fusion of Whitman's conception of a democratic nation with Daugherty's procreant imagination became the foundation for his mural work of the 1920s and 1930s. In reading Whitman's poetry, Daugherty discovered America's majestic past and envisioned her magnificent future.

Whitman's concept of the artist as an essential component of a new and vital cultural life fueled Daugherty's aspirations to paint murals. After returning to the states, he wrote:

It is imaginable that great works of mural art will be the way in which American art and industry will in a permanent and noble way tell the great story of America's new idealism and tremendous accomplishment to the world. However, the artist must bring his vision, his magic of color and story telling power to industry and show how this message can be told in a glowing and vivid way.[49]

Daugherty's murals, particularly the cycle for Stamford High School, executed in 1934 during the Depression's worst year, emanate a Whitmanesque spirit of optimism and rhythmic vitality. They affirm Whitman's faith in the American destiny and the future of democracy.

It is difficult to appreciate Daugherty's contribution to American mural painting in the 1930s without first considering, albeit briefly, how avant-garde color theory and modernist visual styles entered his painting vocabulary and consequently affected his mural work. [50]

Returning to the States in mid-1907, with a Whitmanesque sense of America's potential, Daugherty faced the more practical issue of finding employment as an illustrator as quickly as possible. He lived in Washington, but it is unclear how many months he actually spent there and whether these months were contiguous. Daugherty's activities and whereabouts consternated even friends who chastised him for not keeping them better informed about his situation. Hunt Diederich, for example, sent him a postcard from Paris, glibly chiding him, "I heard of you from a girl from New Zealand and also hear you were back in D. C." [51]

With cover illustrations appearing in magazines such as Harpers Weekly and Colliers, Daugherty achieved an early but inadequate economic success. The years between 1908 and 1911 were particularly difficult and trying. He questioned whether to continue making a living as an illustrator or to pursue his interest in painting.[52] Friends from Brangwyn's studio wrote encouraging letters, "Pal! we've got to move ourselves or speak gently. He [Edward Trumbull?], thinks you ought to mix up with Reuterdahl and others, he says you far surpass Leyendecker in imagination -- and you've got to earn quids -- earn them, don't paint -- make money -- then quit." [53]

Another London friend, Arthur Covey, an American artist, who had been Brangwyn's assistant from 1903 to 1908, had returned to America to settle in Leonia, New Jersey, a rural town across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan. Daugherty joined Covey there in the summer of 1909. Leonia's proximity to New York's publishing industry must have made the move appealing to Daugherty. Moreover, Covey's active participation as an officer of the National Mural Painters Society would help Daugherty keep abreast of developments in American mural painting.

Daugherty secured contracts with major publishers, such as the American Book Company, which hired him to produce illustrations for its popular Otis Book Series. (Fig. 10)

By 1911, with the income generated by such steady work, Daugherty could afford brushes, paint, linseed oil, and canvas. His opportunity to record the world around him as a painter thus coincided with his introduction to European avant-garde art.

If Daugherty had not noticed modernism during his two years in Europe, the antithesis was true in New York, where he found himself engulfed by it. In June 1911, he moved to 61 Poplar Street in Brooklyn Heights, where he lived and worked with other artists in a large building with top-floor studios that provided a scenic view of the New York Harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge. In autobiographical notes, Daugherty states that upon moving to Brooklyn, "[he] went modern with a vengeance." [54] Two books, C. Lewis Hind's Post-Impressionists (London, 1911), and Jay Hambridge's Dynamic Symmetry in Composition (New Haven, 1910), initially provoked his interest in modernism. [55]

Daugherty's contact with modernist artists while living and working in Brooklyn was equally important. Daugherty's son recalls that an Italian artist, Athos ( or Albert) Casarini, also lived at 61 Poplar Street and introduced his father to Italian futurism. He also met two energetic forces on the international art scene, Walt Kuhn and Walter Pach, both of whom introduced him to the New York art world and to the avant-garde circles within it.[56]

By March 1911, Daugherty had met Sonia Medvedeva (18931971), a Russian emigre and a writer, who lived in Bronx Park. [57] They married in 1912, and the following year, their son and only child, Charles, was born. (Fig. 11 )

In February 1913, Daugherty visited the International Exhibition of Modern Art, more commonly known as the Armory Show, a sizable and impressive showcase for European modernism with a smattering of work by Americans, held in New York and thereafter in Chicago. His friends, Walt Kuhn and Walter Pach, had largely organized the exhibition, and although they had selected a number of American artists, Daugherty was not among them.

Seeing the Armory Show transformed Daugherty, as it did an untold number of American artists. The art historian John Rewald has lucidly expressed the exhibition's impact: "No American artist or art lover, young or old who visited the overpowering Armory Show, was the same afterward." [58]

Modernism's initial imprint upon Daugherty's work was futurism, which, as Gail Levin has noted, was one of the movements not represented in the Armory Show, but most likely came from Daugherty's association with Athos Casarini.[59]

Daugherty's series of modernist full-page color illustrations for the New York Sunday Herald in 1914, are especially radical in their visual style and sense of movement. They are both futurist compositions as well as parodies of the movement itself. Although the American public perceived futurism as outrageous, it did not greet it with the same hostility as other European avant-garde movements, such as cubism. Futurism was ripe for parody, and Daugherty drew these illustrations in great fun. He created modest jokes and visual puns whenever possible. Civilized Warfare, for example, a full-page color illustration for the Herald's issue of 23 August 1914, is a dynamic composition, full of power and energy, an inventive counterpart to the oxymoron of the title. (Fig. 12)

Of all the innovative European avant-garde styles represented in the Armory show -- fauvism, cubism, symbolism, German expressionism -- the works of Matisse and Cézanne created the most substantial and lasting impression upon Daugherty. After the show closed, Walter Pach, and Arthur Burdett Frost, Jr. (son of the famous illustrator, A. B. Frost), both of whom had met and had become friends with Matisse in Paris, sustained Daugherty's interest in his art, providing him with an apprenticeship of sorts in Matisse's principles of color and Cézanne's principles of pictorial construction.

Pach had met Matisse in 1907, and soon became one of his chief apologists in America. Within a year of organizing the Armory Show, Pach mounted an exhibition of Matisse's work at the Montross Gallery in January 1915, and published an analysis of his work called "Why Matisse?" in the February 1915 issue of Century Magazine. Both the exhibition, Matisse's first solo exhibition of original work of art in New York, and the thought-provoking article did much to encourage an appreciation for Matisse's work in America. [60]

Within days after taking a studio at 8 East Fourteenth Street in early January 1915, Daugherty met Frost, who was in the process of moving into the adjoining studio. Frost belonged to the group of American artists who had studied at the Académie Matisse, after it opened at the Couvent des Oiseaux in January 1908. He had also worked in Paris with the artists, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who had pioneered a technique of color abstraction called orphism. Daugherty recalled that Frost told him, "I will explain to you the color principles of Matisse and Delaunay under both of whom I studied, if you like. As I had never heard of the principles of art or anything else discussed in the dreary copy models classes I had attended in America and abroad, this sounded like a treasure dropped in my lap."[61]

Frost instructed Daugherty using pastel diagrams and sketches as well as wax crayons, teaching him how to employ modernist color theory, among other progressive painting techniques he had learned in Paris. Frost noted, "in painting from the model form is rendered by primatic contrasting color planes-yellow advancing and violet receding."

Nowhere is Matisse's and Cézanne's influence upon Daugherty more evident than in a small pastel called La Joie deVivre, ca. 1920.[62] (Fig. 13, cat. no. 1). The drawing has the quality of being an exercise in the formal disciplines of the two artists. Moreover, the horizontal format suggests that Daugherty may have intended to use the drawing as preliminary study for a mural.

The shapes of the nude women in La Joie de Vivre immediately recall the dark-outlined nymphs in Matisse's sensuous paintings of the years 1907-08. In structure, La Joie deVivre bears a striking resemblance to Cézanne's series of paintings of bathers.[63]

Among the colors in Daugherty's palette are the intense yellow and violet that Frost had taught him how to use to affect spacial relationships. Here, Daugherty experiments with the two colors by using them on opposing figures, and fills in other areas with various colors to recreate Matisse's color sensitivity. Even the title is from Matisse, since the monumental canvas, Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-06 (The Barnes Foundation, Merion Station, Pa.), has a history of being called "La joie de vivre."[64]

Daugherty pursued the idea of creating a mural under Matisse's theoretical guidance. A sketchbook contains studies for a panel, one of which, entitled Western Shores, includes a tiny circle of dancing figures in the distance, unquestionably appropriated from Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre. Surrounding the dancing motif are the organic, curving forms of nude figures, some in poses highly reminiscent of Matisse's pastoral figures.

Under Frost's tutelage Daugherty also became proficient in the abstract color theory known as synchromism. Although synchromism never developed strict criteria, as practiced by Frost and passed on to Daugherty, the technique was a synthesis of Matisse's fauve aesthetic and the theory of orphism developed by the Delaunays. Based upon the idea of simultaneous contrast, synchromism was concerned with the optical sensations created by the juxtaposition of contrasting colors. (Fig. 15)

Upon America's entry into World War I, Daugherty volunteered to work as a camouflage artist in the Navy. What could have been a routine year of monotonous work, became instead a liberating experience. Daugherty treated the ship diagrams as if they were enormous expanses to be covered with an arrangement of harmonious colors. In some designs, he experimented with bright hues to observe the structure of color relations within the outline of a battleship. [65]

Of particular interest are the posters and billboards Daugherty designed for the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information. Daugherty contemplated Whitman's poems of America's greatness for the inspiration to design these posters. The muscular figures and heroic male nudes from Daugherty's synchromist period are here inspired by the heroic American serviceman, a living embodiment of the romantic individual Daugherty envisioned upon returning from Europe. (Fig. 16)

Returning to New York in 1919, Daugherty resumed many of the same activities of which he had been a part before the war, such as exhibiting with the Society of Independent Artists, a membership organization of artists without restrictions that charged a nominal hanging fee for their jury-free exhibitions. He continued to support the organization until 1924.

In 1920, Daugherty joined the progressive organization, Société Anonyme, established by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp to foster an understanding of, and appreciation for, avant-garde art in America. Daugherty participated in its first exhibition held that year and also in many others, including its most impressive exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926-27. As Levin has noted, Dreier classified Daugherty as a simultaneist in the Brooklyn catalogue because of his work's relationship to that of Frosts and the Delaunays.

Daugherty's career as an illustrator advanced rapidly during the 1920s. Between 1925 and 1929, he illustrated twenty-six books and in addition, he became among the first artists The New Yorker's art editor, Rhea Irvin, hired as a staff illustrator. [66] Daugherty produced over a dozen illustrations and two covers during his association with The New Yorker from 1925 to 1927. His modernist vision of contemporary life matched the magazine's desire to project an image of urbane elegance and sophisticated wit. One of Daugherty's rejected covers, a drawing of a tumbling football player, is a clever pun on Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space of 1913. (Fig. 17)

In 1920, Marcus Loew, the show business impresario and one of the innovators of the ostentatious American movie palaces of the 1920s, awarded Daugherty his first major mural commission for the lobby of the State Theater in Cleveland, Ohio.[67]

The architect Thomas Lamb designed the 3,400-seat theater, one of over three hundred motion picture theaters he had designed by the end of his career using an eclectic combination of styles, Greek, Roman, and European baroque. Lamb's theaters had lobbies that functioned as purposeful spaces where "exotic ornaments, colors, and scenes are particularly effective in creating an atmosphere in which the mind is free to frolic and becomes receptive to entertainment." [68] Daugherty's four murals, The Spirit of Fantasy -- Asia; The Spirit of Pageantry -- Africa; The Spirit of Drama -- Europe; and The Spirit of Cinema -- America, embody Lamb's vision of theater lobbies. (Fig.18)

Daugherty called his mural cycle an example of "Post-war art," a technique he developed as a result of his experience as a camouflage artist during the war. "I treat my panel exactly like the side of a ship. First of all it is a question of color. I layout my design in color without a consideration for what figures I am going to employ. Of course, there is an initial idea that must be worked for, but detail is secondary. Then after the mass and contrast is there, I work out my figures...as needed...and the first working drawing is made." [69]

Reaction to the murals in the local press was positive. One reviewer wrote effusively: "The State Theater murals match the feeling of today. Bright colors, Vigor, Snap, Force, Humor, Punch! The most obvious aspect of these paintings is their pure colors, Orange, Green,Yellow, Blue, Scarlet, Black, Vermillion [sic], Gold!... These murals present nothing which is queer, morbid, or depressed [a reference to Leon Bakst's set designs]. They are quick, assertive, cheerful, superficial. In theme, as in color, they are truly characteristic of the United States." [70]

The artist and writer, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart (father of the abstract expressionist painter, Richard), praised Daugherty as "a daring colorist" and commended his understanding of color theory: "He knows what it will do, and he has made it do unusual things in these decorations.... [He] has taken the whole spectrum -- primaries, secondaries and tertiaries -- and whirled it into new and astonishing patterns." [71] He remarked upon Daugherty's lack of skill in drawing, but excused it since each of the four, ten-by-forty-six-foot panels had been painted in two weeks, "necessarily therefore, [the murals] have some of the faults of this quick execution."

Loew's also commissioned Daugherty to decorate a lounge in a theater in Newark, New Jersey. (Fig.19)

A photograph of the room and Daugherty's maquette have survived, but the theater was demolished in 1978. The Newark room combines areas of decorative patterning, similar to the style of the Cleveland murals with the quasi-abstract style of Daugherty's synchromist painting.

By the mid-1920s, Daugherty's work showed signs of pulling away from the nonobjective tendencies of color abstraction, moving closer to a more realistic style. He continued, however, to employ vivid colors, but developed a more tangible style of attenuating the Matisse-like figures.

An early example of Daugherty's adaptation of modernist principles to mural drawing is The Model "T" Decade, ca. 1925 (Fig. 20, cat. no. 2). Here, Daugherty updates the idea of the Concert champêtre by investing it with an unmitigated American spirit. It's immediate predecessor is Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, although Daugherty has reworked the composition by adding a figure and reversing others, as well as organizing the scene in a vertical, rather than horizontal, format. Instead of the boat in the background, he has inserted a bright blue automobile. The women are flapper types (the central figure has been given blazing red hair!), and the men are robust and athletic. The group is engaged in the characteristic activities of a pastoral subject -- dreaming, listening to music, and romance. Yet Daugherty's pastoral is not a metaphorical fantasy nor an imaginary, allegorical landscape, but is instead an image of the new leisure, a subject that fascinated him throughout the '20s and '30s. Arcadia can be reached easily if one has a car to get there.

South Wind, a lunette study for the President Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, ca. 1926 (cat. no. 3)[72] is a further example of Daugherty's search for a way of combining modernism with realism. An explicit reference to Botticelli's Birth of Venus (ca. 1485, Uffizi, Florence), Daugherty employs pastel to achieve vibrant colors and includes female figures based upon Matisse's sensuous nudes, but far more defined. Noticeable, too, in studies such as this one, is the strong, fluid linear activity, which creates a sense of sweeping movement. The deftness of his pencil strokes connote his remarkably dexterous draftsmanship. His drawing ability now appears as a seemingly effortless rhythmic flow within his compositions.

By the end of the 1920s, Daugherty had established a reputation as both a muralist and book illustrator. The Brooklyn Daily Times published a short, friendly feature on him with the caption: "Daugherty's Work Shows True Artist." The author's unabashed praise for his work suggests that the article may have been ghostwritten by a well-disposed admirer. Nevertheless, the account provides an insightful contemporary observation of his work:

Daugherty is highly decorative in his designs. Unusually so. But the greatest thing about him -- the thing that makes his work supreme is his mesmeric grip on his theme and transferring the very soul of it to the canvas, the inner soul, whether it be homely or otherwise. He flings the prettinesses to the winds. He paints and draws mercilessly the roughness of life, if that happens to be the circumstance. If you like what is sincere in art, if you have no use for affectations or charlatanism -- you'll like Daugherty. [73]

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