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

by Rebecca E. Lawton




The construction of Rockefeller Center in the 1930s invigorated artists as much as it did urban planners and architects. To build the colossal project, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. engaged three architectural firms, Reinhard & Hofmeister; Corbett, Harrison, & MacMurray; and Hood & Fouilhoux. As designs for the complex progressed, Rockefeller felt compelled to invent a theme to express the quintessential nature of his vast plan to develop midtown Manhattan. The theme would act as a prescription for the center's ornamentation, both interior and exterior. After months of deliberation and extensive consultation with numerous scholars, Rockefeller's administrative unit decided upon "New Frontiers and the March of Civilization." [74] Rockefeller had hired Harley Burr Alexander, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, as a theme inventor and advisor. Before Alexander departed in 1932, the architects had already initiated several of his ideas for decorative projects.

The Sixth Avenue entrance to the RCA Building was among the skyscrapers designated to receive one of Alexander's exterior design proposals. In early May 1932, Daugherty's old friend from London, Edward Trumbull, who now worked for the center's architects, invited him to compete for the commission, a fourteen-by-seventy-six-foot mosaic for the building's exterior vestibule between west Forty-Ninth and Fiftieth Streets. Three artists, in addition to Daugherty, received the prospectus and information that "the subject of the mosaic is to be that suggested in the [Alexander's] theme, 'Intelligence Awakening the Public'" (later changed to "Mankind").

Two days after the competition's deadline of 15 June, Trumbull informed Daugherty that "Barry Faulkner won the competition, on the votes of the Art Committee -- and the architects were all for you.... The committee also voted that you should receive a decoration to do -- without competition -- to compensate you for your noble work! "[75] Daugherty never received a commission for the center, and it is not yet known whether the center's architects or art committee ever invited him to compete for another project.

Four drawings presented in this exhibition (see Figs. 21- 24 cat. nos. 4-7), are studies for Daugherty's Rockefeller Center proposals, although none include holographic inscriptions connecting them to the project.[76]

Daugherty's proposal for the RCA Building's vestibule, titled Understanding Enlightening Mankind, divided the mural into three sections, each with a separate sub-theme and pictorial scheme.[77] The left panel, "Understanding benefiting mankind thru its practical application," included visual representations of "release of power" (electric, water, and coal); "Radio Broadcast" (steam transportation and motor aircraft); and "Mental and recreational activities" (sports, youth movements, books, newspapers). The scheme for the central panel presented a staggering subject, "the fruits of understanding realized in universal peace. The convergence of scientific and spiritual enlightenment bringing about the brotherhood of man." The right panel, "Understanding releasing man's spiritual resources," included visual representations of moral law (as revealed by the decalogue); the beatitudes (spiritual awakening); and meditation and prayer (the inner life).

Two drawings, Radio Broadcast (Fig. 21, cat. no. 6), and Happy is the Man (Fig. 22, cat. no. 7), are unquestionably studies for Rockefeller Center. Both are squared for transfer, as specified in the prospectus -- one-and-one-half inches to the foot and both are subjects based upon his proposal.

Daugherty's vivid color scheme and explosive sense of movement is especially evident in the watercolor, Radio Broadcast, a preliminary design for the left panel. The flatness of its pictorial space creates a vitality that allows the pictorial scheme to vibrate across the surface. Daugherty combines his knowledge of futurism and Art Nouveau to create the streamlined, pointy shapes characteristic of the Moderne style (later called Art Deco). Here, heroic, Promethean-inspired figures herald the arrival of the machine and the mechanical world of the future.

Happy is the Man, a study for the center panel, includes an inscription from the Old Testament, as a frieze along the top edge. From Proverbs 3: 13-17, it reads: "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth. For the merchandise of it is better than the mechandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." The drawing is notable for the different racial groups, such as African-American and Native American, as well as Caucasian, that Daugherty has included within the scope of humanity. Also, his figures embody various concepts related to the text, oppressed people living within the bonds of slavery or poverty, brotherhood, the intrepid spirit of the pioneers, the wisdom of elders, and the teaching of young children.

Unlike Radio Broadcast, this study is rooted in Daugherty's belief in the spirituality of mankind. The composition recalls Brangwyn's method of massing sculptural figures in the foreground along the bottom edge of picture plane. The contrast in spatial relationships between the two designs signals a shift in theme from Prometheus as the spirit of the future and technology in the service of man to the machine's potential to create a better civilization through understanding man's spiritual needs.

Though there is no evidence that Rockefeller Center's architects fulfilled their offer to award Daugherty a commission, drawings, such as Study for Ceiling Mural (Fig. 23, cat. no. 4), and Allegorical Winged Figure (Fig. 24, cat. no. 5), strongly suggest Daugherty's further involvement in other Rockefeller Center projects. In style and theme, Ceiling Mural is closely related to Radio Broadcast. It is a dynamic vision of contemporary life, combining the motifs of music, work, and play with images of trains, cars, planes, balloons and blimps, skyscrapers, and factories. Heroic-sized nude figures of a man and a woman, in Promethean gestures, reach toward an abstract circular motif in the sky, perhaps receiving the gift of the arts of civilization to bestow upon the people below them.

Allegorical Winged Figure is slightly larger than the two drawings for the Sixth-Avenue vestibule and differs from them significantly in style, but is related to them in theme. The subject,a symbolic Promeathean female figure with arms akimbo, is surrounded by images of contemporary life. As the central figure, she divides the composition in half, the right side portraying scenes of family unity, work, education, and brotherhood, while at left, is a representation of the polar opposite: war, social unrest, and political tyranny. At her feet lay the machinery of modern life, the telephone, microphone, a phonograph and radio, and on each side of her head are several monumental hands posed in metaphorical gestures, a motif often employed by the Mexican muralists. One hand, on the left side, is holding a flaming torch. Moreover the drawing's segmentation recalls the work of Diego Rivera, whose murals Daugherty admired greatly. Rivera's work was accessible through reproductions, but Daugherty also may have seen replications of his murals exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931.[78]


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