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

by Rebecca E. Lawton




In 1923, Daugherty moved out of New York City to Weston, a small hamlet in Fairfield County, Connecticut about forty-five miles from the city.[79] The artist's son, Charles, who was ten years old at the time, remembers that several factors provoked the move to Weston. Two of them -- the prohibitively high cost of a family living in New York City on an artist's salary and Sonia Daugherty's persistent entreaty to leave the city -- were among the most compelling.[80] The Boyers' residence in the neighboring town of Westport, as mentioned earlier, presented the Daughertys with an attractive and provident picture of country life.

During the nineteenth century, Westport had been a spartan farming community, but in the 1920s, the town began its remarkable transformation into "a watering hole for a set of energetic, talented people, who flocked there because it was rural, beautiful, cheap, and near the city." [81] Along with a cluster of small neighboring towns, the Westport area became home to dozens of actors, artists, dancers, musicians, and writers, the famous and the not so famous. Among the artists were Ralph Boyer, Edward Boyd, John Steuart Curry, Arthur Dove, Kerr Eby, James Earle Fraser, John Held, Jr., J. Mortimer Lichtenauer, Charles Prendergast, and Everett Shinn, among others. [82] Writers such as Van Wyck Brooks, an intellectual force of the Progressive Era, and Guy Pène du Bois lived in the vicinity, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald during the summer of 1920. Pène du Bois's fitting description of the town appears in his autobiography, Artists Say the Silliest Things (1940), "Westport was neither an essentially idealistic colony nor a real Bohemia. Successes were mainly financial, its disinterested artists few. It was neither the serious Barbizon of the Millet period nor the arty Provincetown of today. It had grace.. .and tolerance." [83]

Daugherty purchased a thirteen-acre parcel of vacant farmland, known as the Drexel homestead. The property contained a long abandoned, pre-Revolutionary-War New England Colonial that was little more than a ruined shack, without heat, running water, or electricity. Undaunted by its uninhabitable state, Daugherty, with the help of neighbors, gradually restored the house and transformed the barn into his studio. (Fig. 25 and 26)

As a member of two local art organizations, the Darien Guild of the Seven Arts and the Silvermine Guild of Artists, located in New Canaan, Daugherty established a solid reputation within the native art circles as an artist, illustrator, and mural painter of distinction. [84] He exhibited work in several of the Seven Arts and Silvermine group shows and each organization mounted solo exhibitions of his work -- the Seven Arts in April 1930 and Silvermine in February 1931.

Under the leadership of Virginia Drew, the Guild of Seven Arts became one of Connecticut's most active and well-run art organizations. Drew, head of the Merrill Business Schools headquartered in Stamford, was an active figure in local art circles and a firm supporter of the artists within her community. Her considerable admiration for Daugherty's work thus provided the key link to his mural commissions for Fairfield County during the 1930s.

In December 1933, Daugherty participated in a group show of work by seven members of the Silvermine Guild at the Montross Gallery in New York City. A review in The Art News focused attention upon Daugherty's work, reporting that" [he] seems to stand out in the gathering... .He so evidently conceives on a large scale, with his contorted figures in the Thomas Benton idiom and broad compositions that at times one regrets his smaller oils. However, the 'Sketch for a Mural' implies that the artist has seriously considered architectural settings for his material." [85]

Daugherty's exhibition of his mural work at the Montross Gallery was timely for it coincided with the arrival in New York, as elsewhere in the country, of America's newest patron, the federal government. During a six-year period from the end of 1933 to 1939, Daugherty experienced the full extent of federal art patronage under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal art projects. At various times, he worked for all four art projects -- the PWAP, WPA, the Section, and TRAP -- creating murals for schools, a municipal office, a low-cost housing development, and a post office. He became one of the art projects' strongest defenders. Writing with admiration in 1938 about the murals for the Justice and Post Office Buildings (commissions he had competed for but did not receive), Daugherty expressed his appreciation for the project:

The above murals should be compared with the decorations in the Library of Congress painted forty years ago to see what has happened to the American spirit in that time. The vital National Spirit expressed in the new murals as against the silly and insincere ideology of the Library decorations, show we have gone a long way. To me the new work is a fulfillment of the vision of America voiced by Walt Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, and is a potent sign of a rebirth of the democratic spirit in our country today -- not as a vision but as a prophesy fulfilled. [86]

He also experienced the New Deal's maze of bureaucratic maneuvers that at times left both him and administrators confused and uncertain over which agency controlled his project. Throughout the process, he encountered the frustration of having government officials reject, revise, and strongly suggest different mural themes from the ones he had chosen. If Daugherty felt any resentment toward the projects' administrators or disappointment at not receiving highly desired commissions, it is not readily apparent. He steadfastly praised the New Deal's art projects and admired its leadership.

President Roosevelt's creation of the Public Works of Art Project on 8 December 1933 was an unprecedented event in American history. [87] Edward Bruce, a Treasury Department lawyer and artist ran the program, which soon became known as Public Works of Art Project and subsequently, as with nearly all New Deal programs, by its initials -- PWAP. [88]

The conservative editor of The Art News, Payton Boswell, closely monitored the program's progress and promptly questioned the value of federal patronage:

The mere formation of a Public Works of Art Project is an epoch making event in America and constitutes the first official recognition in our history of the necessity of art and of its existence as a force in the life of this country. Heretofore, artists have been subconsciously classified as peculiar and [an] essentially unproductive type of eccentric.....What concerns us at the moment...is that it does not matter intrinsically whether bands of academicians or modernists suddenly cover our buildings with swiftly conceived decorations....The government has surprised us by suddenly recognizing the existence and the needs of artists, but state control of art cannot bring us a Renaissance." [89]

PWAP administrators' hallowed aspirations for a new era in American art unintentionally pitted conservative against left-wing art factions, experienced mural painters, such as members of the Mural Painters Society, against those without prior training. They also provoked a debate about the modernist versus the academic style.

Under the aegis of the New England Region, Connecticut's interests were represented by Winslow Ames, director, Lyman Allyn Museum; A. E.Austin, director, Wadsworth Atheneum; Everett B. Meeks, dean of the Yale School of Fine Arts; and Theodore Sizer, then director of the Yale Gallery of Fine Arts.[90] Virginia Drew became the local administrator for Fairfield County.

In Fairfield County, however, artists and art organizations began to question whether their county should be considered part of the New England or Metropolitan New York region. The county's location next to New York State, in Connecticut's southwest corner, permitted artists to work in New York City, but reside in Connecticut, thus making the jurisdiction issue uncertain.[91]

PWAP regional administrators, in their zeal to have the program succeed, exacerbated the problem by also becoming embroiled with the New York City region in an unpleasant dispute over the boundaries of their respective areas. Juliana Force, New York's Regional Director, extended her authority into Fairfield County to obtain qualified mural painters for New York projects. The abduction of several "borderline" artists antagonized Connecticut PWAP officials, especially Theodore Sizer, who expressed frustration over the issue of jurisdiction and dismay at Force's brazen action: "I ran into no end of trouble with Mrs. Force over the southerly boundary of my own district. For instance after most of the good artists were taken from Fairfield County by New York, that county was presented to me with the leftovers." [92] Drew's political savvy resulted in immediate commissions for Darien and Stamford. She prompted local officials, such as the Honorable Charles C. Swartz of South Norwalk, who appeared to her as indifferent to PWAP funding, to quickly develop projects to employ artists.[93]

Daugherty, as an experienced muralist with an established career, became one of the first Connecticut artists Force "abducted" for a New York City commission. Only days after the PWAP had been announced, Daugherty wrote to Force urging her to see his work then on view at the Montross Gallery. "I have been doing mural work for some ten years," he wrote, and "have been unemployed for about 18 months. However, the larger implications of this momentous step in the cultural life of the nation seems more thrilling than the prospect of getting a job again." [94] By the end of December, Force had reviewed Daugherty's qualifications, submitted them to Washington, and admitted him onto the payroll with "1 Class" status.

In early January 1934, the New York Regional Committee seriously considered assigning Daugherty to decorate the rotunda of New York's Custom House in the Battery Park district. Writing to Lloyd Goodrich, a committee member, Daugherty stated that he had completed a set of sketches for the ceiling and had planned the method of execution. "With the aid of about ten assistants and proper materials and equipment I can complete the job by 15 February [1934]."[95]

His themes for the Custom House murals included Law Enforcement, Port of New York, The Immigrants, Returning Americans, The Slave Ship, and Trade. [96] An extant study for The Immigrants provides insight into Daugherty's translation of modernist techniques to meet the requirements of mural painting. (Fig. 27, cat. no. 8)

By organizing the immigrants into a zigzagging pattern as they dislodge from steerage, he creates a sense of movement against a cubistic background. Using precisionist strokes to compress the ship's bow, the Brooklyn Bridge, and New York's skyscrapers together, Daugherty evokes the dynamism of the city. At the center, he places a family before a solid and massive building, a symbolic reference to their spirit, strength, and willpower to succeed in America.

Structural problems within the building delayed the project. After several years of restoration work, the ceiling was ready, but by then PWAP had expired and Daugherty's designs for the project were either disregarded or long forgotten. A new federal program, Treasury Relief Art Project, established in July 1935, assumed control of the project and awarded the commission to Reginald Marsh.

Near the end of January 1934, Daugherty received a new commission for a mural at the Holmes School in Darien, Connecticut. [97]

Created under the aegis of PWAP, with local sponsorship from the Darien Guild of the Seven Arts, it has since been restored (in 1997) by Joseph Matties Jr., with funds from Friends of the Holmes School Mural, Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and the town of Darien.

Daugherty may have considered various themes before settling on the motifs in Nursery Tales. Darien's local press initially announced the subject as "Readings from Mother Goose." In subsequent articles the mural is often referred to as "Nursery Rhymes." Daugherty chose the final and more befitting title, Nursery Tales, since the story of "The Three Little Pigs," featured in the left third of the mural, is a British folk tale, rather than a nursery rhyme, such as "Hey Diddle Diddle,' which fills the right third of the mural.

Daugherty designed Nursery Tales as a morality piece, an ingenious combination of an old British nonsense verse and a vicious tale of British folklore, with a new American twist. It is the lessons of good triumphing over bad, and idleness leading to tragedy, appropriate themes for a room occupied by young children.

Daugherty divided the mural into three sections, composing each one along a diagonal axis. The sections are connected to each other by the placement of children along a serpentine line moving horizontally across the picture plane. At center is the solid, pyramidal form of the eponymous Mrs. Margaret Holmes, the kindergarten teacher, safely keeping her students within the curves of her solid and secure arms, as they read a book placed upon her lap. The trio is surrounded by a lush, bountiful garden full of insects and animals.

At right are three children, who have chosen to ignore the lesson to satisfy themselves with fruit from a basket. Near them, a mangy dog laughingly points at the ludicrous sight of a cat fiddling, a cow jumping, and plate-and-spoon quadrupeds rushing away. "Hey Diddle Diddle," among the best-known verses in the English language, is also among the least-known in origin. One plausible source is a quotation from the sixteenth-century book, A lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of Cambises King of Percia, by Thomas Preston.[98] Daugherty conceived the mural similarly, a catastrophe, but nonetheless a funny one. Upon closer inspection each absurd, amusing action is portrayed as an unpleasant predicament. The spoon, for example, is not running away with the plate, but rather being abducted by it, much to the spoon's distress. Thus, the children's selfish laxity has led to unproductivity and catastrophe.

In the left third of the mural, Daugherty has taken liberties with the nineteenth-century folk tale of the wolf and the three house-building pigs. In the early 1930s, the story was a popular one, thanks to Walt Disney. Using its recently perfected Technicolor process, Disney released The Three Little Pigs in 1933, as one of its Silly Symphonies, the animated shorts shown in movie theaters before the feature presentation. The cartoon was among the earliest of Disney's animations to endow characters with personalities. The Three Little Pigs, with help from its theme song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" became an overnight sensation. Filmgoers saw the wolf as a symbol of the Depression and the song became a national rallying cry in America. [99]

Disney had transformed the original wolf in the British tale from a diabolical menace who did indeed kill little pigs into a dreadful, mean-spirited tramp dressed in patched denim overalls, and a worn-out top hat. Disney's wolf only scared pretentious, improvident little pigs. Daugherty transformed the wolf into a splendidly attired animal with a bag full of money. Daugherty's wolf is an impressive looking creature, a capitalist with a dazzling belt and fine leather boots. He holds his money bag tightly to his chest while raising his arm in a menacing gesture. The wolf stands beneath a dead tree limb with black crows flying about, while below him the little pigs register various states of astonishment at the wolf's adverse behavior, and the eldest pig runs away to the safety of his cautious and carefully constructed house.

The mural filled a long narrow wall in the kindergarten room. Daugherty created a Deco-style frieze at the top. Below the mural, school officials installed tiles from the Royal Delft Manufactory, while decorative tiles in the cloisonne style marked ceramic coat hangers. [100] (Fig. 38)

The local press described the mural as "a lively orchestration of color and form." [101] The Holmes schoolchildren faced it everyday as they hung up the coats. Daugherty enjoyed working on the mural, explaining in a letter to Force,

It has been particularly heartening on my particular job to observe the definitely hostile and cold attitude of the school teachers warm up as the work on the wall has progressed to one of a real and keen enthusiasm. This being New England. Regarding the speculation as to how much of this will be significant as art I am beginning to realize that this is of very little import compared to the measurable facts that numerous schools and community centers of the most dreary and colorless aspect will be enormously distinguished enriched and made significant by mural art considerable in advance of most of the high priced decoration put in public and commercial buildings in the past. [102]

On 2 March 1934, PWAP officials approved Stamford's request for eight artists to work on local projects. Daugherty, having already completed the Holmes mural, received one of the largest commissions, a mural cycle for the music auditorium at Stamford High School. Daugherty's murals for Stamford High School played small part in the much larger effort to improve the quality of life in America under the New Deal's Works Projects Administration (WPA) and its predecessor, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Stamford town officials appropriated monies for dozens of civic projects from widening streets to accommodate the ever increasing number of automobiles on the roads to erecting playgrounds and athletic fields. Stamford High School, a brick Colonial built in 1929, for example, received approximately $212,868.40 in federal funds to construct first-class athletic facilities where none had existed before.

The commission consisted of nine-foot-high murals covering over one thousand square feet of space in an octagonal room. Seven walls were proposed for murals, with the eighth wall, at the rear of the auditorium, filled by a large set of windows. Daugherty commenced work on the cycle in early March as a Class A artist at the newly approved national standard salary of $ 38.25 per week and completed it, roughly four months later, around the end of June. [103]

The cycle contained four major murals intended to be viewed sequentially, beginning to the right of the entrance with New England Tradition, American Rhythm, Forever Panting and Forever Young (most often called School Activities, and included the section titled, Sports Frenzy), and Knowledge the Solution of the Problem. A smaller mural, Comedy and Tragedy, filled the niche behind the stage between Sports Frenzy and Knowledge the Solution of the Problem. In addition, a mural called High School Graduates surrounded the primary doorway. [104] (Fig. 34)

The cycle is among Daugherty's most complex works, encompassing over two hundred figures, nearly all of which were the frequently-used Depression-Era symbols: the family, the pioneer, the common man, the farmer, and the worker. Daugherty divided the room into two topical sections, one a comment on present-day America, portraying scenes of daily life, and the other a history lesson featuring New England's exceptional heroes and most portentous events, as well as the tradition of American music. Daugherty reintroduced the idea of a freize to circle the room with an inscription from the Old Testament, using the same quotes from Proverbs 3: 13-1 7 that he had employed in Happy is the Man (Fig. 22, cat. no. 7), the study for Rockefeller Center.

Daugherty created the cycle with a Whitmanesque sensibility. Its scenes of education and future technology, family and community, selfhood and society, are bound together to present a coherent appeal to rejuvenate the American spirit. By encompassing nearly every facet of contemporary social and political life and fusing them to the historical foundation of democracy, Daugherty's murals correspond to many of the ideas of the Progressive Movement, chiefly its crusade to create a new society that integrated the individual within the community. [105] By portraying the school's actual teachers and students in the mural, School Activities, Daugherty produced a documentary about real people during the Depression. He conceived American Rhythm (Fig. 32, cat. no. 11 and Fig. 33; also see cat. nos. 10 and 12) as appropriate subject matter for the auditorium, to convey the idea of unity among the various races of American people, and Sports Frenzy to celebrate the notion of teamwork.

Connecticut's PWAP administrators considered the Stamford mural cycle as among its most successful projects. The Report of Work Relief under the Emergency Relief Commission of Connecticut 1934-35 referred to it as "outstanding," while a later report of 1939 considered the project "one of the best mural jobs in the U.S. done under a relief program." Survey Graphic, a progressive journal concerned with social and economical issues, published two illustrated articles on the cycle. [106] Virginia Drew believed the murals "will go down through the years ahead of us as among Stamford's most valued Possessions." [107]

The murals were removed from the walls in 1970 and later restored by Hiram Hoelzer. Comedy and Tragedy has been sold to a private collector. High School Graduates (Fig. 34) is missing and presumed destroyed. (Fig. 34) Hoelzer, at the time of publication, owns the remaining murals, although some have sections missing.

When the PWAP terminated on 20 May 1934, volunteer administrators, such as Virginia Drew, sought funding to complete unfinished projects from relief agencies within their states. FERA supported the completion of Daugherty's Stamford mural cycle and he continued employment under the states' relief agencies until May 1935, when Connecticut's WPA unit for federal art projects added him to its payroll. During this period he worked on designs for a variety of mural projects, although only a few, such as the mural for Greenwich's Town Hall and a series of four small panels for the Woodfield Village Children's Home, were ever executed. When he transferred to the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) in the fall of 1935, he abandoned his work on a mural for Greenwich High School. [108]

Under the aegis of the WPA, Daugherty created a nine-by-twenty-two-foot mural in 1935 for the Selectman's Office in Greenwich, Connecticut. Greenwich had constructed an addition to its town hall that year and thus it is most likely that local officials requested a mural to decorate the building. Daugherty executed The Life and Times of General Israel Putnam of Connecticut specifically for the First Selectman's office, where it was designed to fit above a chair railing roughly four feet from the floor and a foot below the ceiling, and to stretch along a wall and over the office's doorway.

Greenwich had appropriated money in its 1934 budget to pay for materials slated for its celebration of the state's Tercentenary in 1935. Patriotic organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Colonists and the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as the Greenwich Historical Society, produced various events to commemorate the town's Colonial past and its venerable contributions to establishing the state's constitution. A reenactment of General Israel Putnam's famous escape from the British by plunging down a precipice on horseback took place in May 1935, as part of the Tercentenary events.[109]

Given the interest in the Tercentenary that year, it is not surprising that Daugherty would paint a mural for the town honoring its most prestigious Revolutionary War soldier. At a time when Americans needed heroes to promote patriotic feelings eroded by the Depression, an authentic folk hero presented a superlative mural subject. Putnam's legendary exploits and courageous actions presented Daugherty with the opportunity to portray a genuine American hero.

Israel Putnam, had played a major role in nearly every patriotic celebration held in Greenwich since 1779, the year of his famous escape from the British. In 1879, the town had commemorated the centennial of General Putnam's ride by organizing a monumentous celebration that bolstered his legendary status and promoted him as the archetypical hero into the next century.

Daugherty's mural is the story of the making of an authentic American hero. He began the composition in grisaille using a limited number of figures to analyze its rhythmic movement without the interference of color (cat. no. 15). His next composition, a color study, preserves most of his initial motifs, but sets the tone to employ vivid blues, greens, and yellows, as well as a dazzling white for Putnam's horse (Fig. 36, cat. no. 16).

Daugherty arranged the composition episodically, but not chronologically, to allow the central section of the mural to portray a seemingly larger-than-life image of General Putnam triumphantly mounted on horseback. The left foreground of the mural presents Putnam's first act of bravery, the killing of a wolf that had been ravaging the town's sheep and goats, while in the background is the scene of his perilous escape from the British by riding his horse over a steep precipice. At right, is a frightening image of Putnam being burned alive at the stake during the French and Indian Wars. Those who know the story, know of course that within moments, Putnam was miraculously rescued.

Daugherty used Putnam as the model American hero, a man with the intelligence, leadership, and courage to turn ordinary events into extraordinary exploits. A farmer turned patriot, Putnam reinforced the mythic belief that true American folk heroes were not fantastic supermen, but regular folk who, in fighting for freedom, became legends.


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