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

by Rebecca E. Lawton




The Section of Painting and Sculpture (known as the Section), established in October 1934, awarded commissions for the decoration of federal buildings based upon anonymous competitions. Its objective was to select the best quality art for public buildings by using a system of either national, regional, or local juries or a combination thereof, depending upon the importance of the commission. The program was administered by Edward Bruce, assisted by Edward Rowan, an arts administrator and former member of Grant Wood's Stone City (Iowa) Art Colony; Olin Dows, an artist, and Forbes Watson.

A number of Daugherty's known and/or presumed preliminary designs for the post office competitions are extant. As he was eligible to enter several competitions, the three studies presented in this exhibition (cat. nos. 20, 21, and 22), could be preliminary design ideas for any of them or simply exploratory designs without reference to a particular project.

The Section's first competition for the decoration of the Washington, DC. Justice and Post Office buildings began with an election process that resulted in eleven painters and two sculptors receiving assignments for specific projects within the two buildings. Daugherty may have been among the primary candidates, as he participated in the limited competition for the remaining projects, which were awarded to artists who had received one or more votes through the election process, as well as other artists whom the Section's Advisory Committee deemed entitled to compete by the quality of their work.

The Section's Bulletin for April 1935 offered a list of suggested topics for both buildings. Suitable subjects for the post office included historical episodes of the U.S. Postal Service and present day activities in the lobby, or the newest methods for delivery of mail. In late October, the Section mounted an exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of designs by the artists and sculptors who had been appointed or were in the process of competing for commissions. Daugherty's work was included in the exhibition, but he was not awarded a contract for either building. [110]

His design for a post office lobby (Fig. 37, cat. no. 20), is packed with action and humorous, dramatic scenes of the various reactions people have to receiving and reading their mail. Another sketch (cat. no. 21), is a combination of suggested subjects for historical scenes, encompassing Ben Franklin in his post office, the pony express, and nineteenth-century pioneers reading letters.

Section administrators urged artists to develop themes by researching the subject in libraries and historical societies. The Meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad (Fig. 38, cat. no. 22) is an example of Daugherty's presentation, albeit anomalous, of the historic completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869. The well-documented event contains all the requisite elements of a good mural subject. As the journalist Samuel Bowles, who chronicled the building of the railroad, explained, "as the first [it] will forever remain the one of history; the one of romance. Its construction in so short a time the greatest triumph of modern civilization, of all civilization, indeed." The iconic image of the ceremonial striking of the last rail at Promontory Point in Utah, was widely reported in the press and documented by photographers, such as Andrew Joseph Russell. As the art historian, Susan Danly, notes, "For many nineteenth-century Americans it was Russell's image of the two engines face to face on the single track that epitomized the century's greatest triumph of technology over nature.[111]

Daugherty's conception of the event is not a complacent endorsement of the triumph of technology over nature, but rather an interesting comment upon it. In his composition, Daugherty pushes the historic ceremony obviously based upon Russell's popular photographs of the event, into the far distance. The focus of Daugherty's composition is upon the builders of the railroad, the various racial groups, such as the Chinese, African-American, and Mexican laborers. He groups them together as powerful, larger-than-life figures along the lower edge of the picture plane. They are the heroic figures. Moreover, it is impossible to overlook Daugherty's placement of a Native American seated on the ground at the feet of a standing group of patriotic local people. Daugherty's use of the solitary Native American as a symbol of the dispossessed indigenous peoples and destructive potential of the progress of civilization upon nature recalls its use as a motif within the tradition of nineteenth-century American landscape painting. [112]

Many of the preliminary sketches Daugherty submitted for post office competitions reveal a sense of spontaneity that many juries, more accustomed to the highly detailed academic style, read as unresolved or careless in execution. Daugherty's use of vibrant, unusual color in his mural designs for post offices, most especially in works such as The Meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad, and his application of modernist techniques, such as in the lobby scene, where the flattening of the pictorial space and compression of the figures into a swirling frenzy has an abstract, cubist sensibility, were too provocative and therefore inappropriate to most jurors. Edward Rowan explained to Daugherty, "My personal reaction to [your] work is that your compositions are crowded and the restless rhythm rather overdone. The drawing is unquestioned." [113]

Not only did conservative-minded juries fail to understand Daugherty's intentions but art critics as well. "His figures are conceived in the great lucid style of a mural artist. Powerful as they are his sometime bizarre color is an unnecessary reinforcement." [114]

Criticism questioning Daugherty's use of "bizarre" color in his work appeared throughout the 1930s. His vibrant use of color combined with his vigorous handling of paint indeed overwhelmed many people. When state PWAP administrators reviewed black-and-white photographs of the Stamford High School murals after their installation, they noticed that Daugherty had misspelled the word "principle" in the frieze above the murals (see Fig.34 ). After pointing it out to the local administrator, she replied, "To be perfectly honest, I have never seen the quotation since the murals are such an eye-full that nobody reads the text." [115] The staff at Woodfield Village Children's Home in Bridgeport, Connecticut was compelled to remove the four panels Daugherty had executed for the orphanage in 1935 with WPA funding, shortly after they had been installed. The Board of Managers diplomatic letter informed Daugherty, "We found we made a mistake in hanging the murals you painted in so small a room. They seemed quite overpowering there, so we removed them and are storing them until a larger room is found." [116] Color became such a major issue in the Fairfield Court mural cycle that it threatened to end his involvement in the project.

The reservation expressed by Daugherty's patrons about his bold color schemes in so many of his murals implies that the American public of the 1930s had yet to become accustomed to the use of extremely brilliant color. Even by the end of the decade, mainstream Americans had not developed an appreciation for nor understanding of modernist color theory. In 1937, a Life magazine feature on Daugherty described his color as "violent." [117]

The competition for the New London, Connecticut, post office was an "invitational" competition open only to Connecticut artists.[118] Supervised on the local level by a jury comprised of Theodore Sizer as chairman, Morris Payne, the post office's architect, and Wayland W. Williams, a state Section administrator, plans for the competition had begun in late January 1935. By the end of March, thirty candidates, John Steuart Curry, Thomas La Farge, and Aldis Browne, among others, received their invitations to submit proposals.[119] Thomas La Farge (son and grandson of two artists, Bancel and John La Farge respectively), responded to the invitation that although he was interested in the commission, his official residence was New York. While the family homestead in Carmel, north of New Haven, gave him a "foot" in Connecticut, he was reluctant to enter the competition. Both Bruce and Dows urged him to apply, assuring him that his New York residence would not prevent him from consideration. [120]

Daugherty had not been among the roster of preselected artists invited to compete. In late April, upon learning of the competition and concluding that his status as a Connecticut artist had made him eligible, Daugherty wrote to Sizer asking if he could to submit sketches for the project. Sizer agreed and sent him the prospectus for the commission including a list of suggested subjects. [120] All of the suggested topics emphasized New London's history as a seaport, its experiments with submarines, the shipbuilding industry, the landing of the British and burning of the town in 1781, the Indian Wars, friendly relations between settlers and the Indians during the earliest days of the colony, and the arrival of the Amistad, the slave ship which came ashore in New London after the African slaves on board had mutinied. The episode made legal history and "did much to crystallize abolition feeling in New England." A second sheet suggested the theme of New London's whaling industry.

The committee required competing artists to submit a total of four drawings; three executed on a half-inch to one-foot scale with each of the three drawings showing one pair of panels. The fourth drawing, the presentation sketch, was to be executed on a three-inches-to-the-foot scale and prepared in much greater detail than the other three drawings. [121]

Daugherty's presentation sketch, The Whalers (cat. no. 19), measures 9" x 42 1/ 2". He took advantage of the elongated format to create an episodic dramatization of three of the whaling industry's most compelling spectacles. Beginning at left, Daugherty groups seamen together at the crucial moment of harpooning the whale; at center, a dock scene shows men hauling barrels of whale oil, the sales profit from which goes to a smartly dressed couple with haughty expressions, at the far right. The woman looks directly out to capture the viewers' attention and thus lead them back into the composition. Arranging the figures along the lower edge of the picture plane allowed Daugherty to create an abstracted scene of sky and water in the background. The entire composition pulsates with action through the use of sharp diagonals and the fluid, rhythmic arrangement of the figures in the foreground. Further, Daugherty has constructed the composition using color to accentuate the sense of movement.

Daugherty worked on the New London competition after completing the Stamford High School murals. Given his working method of recycling images either exactly or with slight alterations, it is not surprising to find that motifs in The Whalers originated in Daugherty's designs for the Stamford mural cycle. For example, the drawing, The Epic of New England (cat. no. 14), as well as the actual mural, Historical New England, contain the same dramatic scene of the harpooning of the whale that appears in The Whalers.

The close of the New London competition was set for 3 June 1935 and the entries were sent to Washington for approval and final selection. In August, the entries returned to Connecticut for exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, In early September 1935, Section officials announced that they had awarded the commission to Tom La Farge.



Created in July 1935 with WPA funds and supervised by the Section, the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), originated as a special program to commission quality works of art to decorate federal buildings. Until it expired in 1939, TRAP hired 446 artists, only seventy-five of whom were on relief. Olin Dows, a former Section administrator supervised the projects. On 6 September 1935, Dows invited Daugherty to join the prestigious program, which promised highly visible commissions. [122] Daugherty gladly accepted the position as a head designer. After a maze of red tape concerning his eligibility for the project, Daugherty received official status as a TRAP artist on 26 November 1935, over two months after Dows had contacted him.

Daugherty accepted a position to design a mural cycle in Stamford commissioned by the Public Works Administration (PWA). The murals were for the Social Room at Fairfield Court, one of the new public housing projects, which the PWA was building under the federal government's new and highly controversial initiative to provide low-cost housing for working Americans.

Daugherty's initial idea for the cycle consisted of eight murals incorporating the themes of Home from Work; Outdoor Sports (New Leisure); Boy Scouts (Youth Movements); American Family; Social Life; Work; Recreation; and Community Life. Daugherty's second version preserved only two of the themes, Home from Work and Social Life. He rejected the other six themes after making numerous studies for them. Two studies for Sports (cat. no. 24 and cat. no. 25) and three studies for Recreation (cat. nos. 26, 27, and 28) are included in this exhibition. Daugherty's drawings for Home from Work and Social Life also underwent revision. Home from Work was retitled Homecoming (cat. no. 31).

By early March 1936, Daugherty learned that the Stamford Housing Authority, which had final approval of the murals, had objected to certain motifs in his scheme. [123] He had presented them with a maquette (cat. no. 23) and five detailed pastel drawings (cat. nos. 34, 35, 38, 36, 40) to pass judgment upon. They protested the "gangster like" appearance of the male figure in Women's Work (Fig. 40, cat. no. 36).

In a decade now famous for its gangster films and the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, the portrayal of a gangster in a mural could be interpreted by viewers as glamorizing America's notorious crime bosses such as Alvin Karpis, John Dillinger, and "Pretty Boy" Floyd, among other notable criminals of the underworld. Housing authorities also took exception to the scene of "the necking party" that appeared in his studies for social life (Fig. 41 , cat. no. 38; see also cat nos. 39-41). The image of lovers embracing was far too explicit and provocative to be painted on the wall of a social room for low-rent housing, a project based on the premise that better housing made better citizens.

After quickly reworking the designs in April, Dows warned Daugherty that sketches that he and an assistant had sent to him for review could not be approved. "There was a unanimous feeling by everyone... that the general conception was too crowded and that you lost by this the dynamic effect of which you are striving." [124] Daugherty's response to Dows indicated his willingness to compromise. He told him, "I have become more and more interested in the problem of an expression of the social forces in a local American community." [125] His idea was to create a comprehensive view of American life, encompassing themes which would interpret home life, labor, music, marriage and romance, education, politics, and power conservation. He felt that his four-inch scale cartoons, such as Danbury Fair (Fig. 42, cat. no. 37), "represented a progressive step in my work and some of my best and most mature expression -- not without labor -- to date." [126] The agricultural fair was one of the oldest and most vivid American institutions and was therefore essential to his theme.

Daugherty's conception of contemporary social life is a marvelous example of his working method, beginning with a black and white study to analyze the compositional movement and a sense of abstract patterning before adding color (see for example, cat. nos. 38-41). In these drawings, his ability to experiment with the image by changing and rearranging figures to construct the scene is especially evident. Daugherty conceived social life by portraying the popular entertainments of the day: female singers such as Lily Pons and the recent interest in playing contract bridge. He also presented the rage for leisure-time activities in the 1930s, an issue the Progressive Movement promoted to workers as a way to maintain their energy, mental health, and family relationships.

Daugherty's superb draftsmanship captured the high spirits of Americans enjoying activities such as sightseeing by car, and more athletic activities such as horseback riding, sailing, golf, and tennis. Ironically, these amusements, once only accessible to the wealthy, became during the Depression an increasing part of middle-class life. Daugherty's sense of humor is pervasive throughout the Fairfield Court mural cycle, but his enjoyment of satire is particularly evident in drawings of leisure time. For example, he did not neglect to include among the joyful activities, other less exciting forms of exercise, such as the onerous, inexorable task of mowing the lawn and other dreaded chores of suburban living (see for example cat. nos. 24-28).

In June 1936, TRAP administrators terminated Daugherty's designs for Fairfield Court. They felt his murals were too overcrowded with figures and his color scheme too vibrant for the room. Dows asked Daugherty if he wished to continue on the project by making another set of designs, "If you are interested in the job and want to continue it, you could re-design four of the panels, and I should suggest as subject matter for these four panels something that was less provocative; in other words, that the satire on social life and education should be omitted." [127] Although greatly disappointed, Daugherty graciously acquiesced, presenting Dows a month later with an entirely new cycle entitled The Democracy of the Machine, which he cautiously executed in a nearly monochrome color scheme of subdued blues and terra cottas (cat. no. 42).

Interviewed by Life magazine for a feature on the Fairfield Court murals, Daugherty said "my murals are supposed to be good fun. They are not an analysis of anything. They are not intended to give intellectual nourishment to the underprivileged of Stamford. I have tried to tell a story in visual terms that can be easily associated with our immediate past.[128]


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