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

by Rebecca E. Lawton




In early June 1937, several months before the Fairfield Court project finally concluded with the installation of the murals in the social room, WPA state administrators for Connecticut requested three additional artists, Daugherty among them, be assigned to them for projects.

Daugherty's interests lay in reactivating a project begun in 1933 for an immense mural design for a war memorial. He reworked and rescaled his original drawings to conform to a large wall at the Hartford Armory. After months of deliberation, municipal officials in Hartford declined the project, and WPA state administrator, Wayland Williams, notified Daugherty in May 1938 of the unlikelihood of the mural ever being executed at the Hartford Armory.[129]

In November 1937, Daugherty appealed to Washington's administrators to place him on their list of candidates for a post office commission, promising them that he "would be on [his] best behavior." [130]

In 1939, Daugherty finally received a post office commission for Virden, Illinois, a small farming community in Macoupin County, twenty miles south of the state's capital, Springfield. Despite its distance from Connecticut, Daugherty expressed excitement about winning the award. Having spent his childhood in southern Indiana and Ohio, he was familiar with Midwestern rural life.

His initial idea of portraying the infamous Virden miners' strikes of 1898 met with resistance both from Virden's postmaster, who found the subject too controversial, and the Section's top officials, Edward Bruce and Edward Rowan, who informed him:

"We...in this office have made every effort to avoid subject matter of such a nature, as we feel the necessity of selling the work of our American painters to the public and for that reason the public must be taken into full consideration. A capable artist can do as much with a pleasant subject as with any other kind.[131]

Daugherty's revised designs included the subject of a boisterous barn dance (Fig. 45, cat. no. 44) and a pastoral scene of the early settlement era "suggesting the hand-made democracy of the middle west." (Fig. 46, cat. no. 45) [132] Given the satire displayed in the barn dance, it is not surprising that Rowan preferred the pastoral theme and thus instructed Daugherty to make a two-inch scale color sketch with his recommended changes to the composition.[133] By the end of May 1939, the Section approved Daugherty's full-size cartoon indicating "that the cartoon possesses a great deal of vitality and interesting rhythm and entertaining forms."

Daugherty's pastoral is a portrait of familial love and he used it to transmit American values from the past. He chose to portray a very specific image of pioneer life. It is not a view of the settlers enduring the hardships of frontier life, nor is it a scene, such as The Barn Dance of pioneers engaged in merrymaking and celebration. Instead, Daugherty presents midwestern settlers during a momentary respite from the ardor and relentless toil of life on the plains. As a pastoral, the mural depicts the conventional motifs of freshness: milk directly from the cow, newly plowed earth and recently killed fowl. In the background, a rainbow indicates that a storm has just passed and the air has been cleansed and the earth enriched.

Daugherty's pioneers are robust types. The central figure bears a slight resemblance to Illinois' most famous native son, Abraham Lincoln. Daugherty used Lincoln's easily identifiable characteristics such as his prominent brow, somber expression, and lanky physique to represent the paterfamilias of the American frontier. Lincoln embodied the concept of the heroic frontiersman -- a man who endured unceasing hardships to protect his family, defend his land, and ultimately to preserve the nation and its democratic ideals.

In November, Daugherty wrote Rowan to acknowledge his pleasure that the project had gone smoothly from the first sketch to the final phase of installation. He ended the letter with words of appreciation for Rowan's work as well as his assessment of the New Deal's art projects, "I like to think of these post office murals as contacts of American art with the American people in the full enjoyment and enrichment of American living in the democratic way. And I am very proud to have taken a small part in realizing this tremendous step forward in the spiritual life of our country." [134] In a handwritten postscript, Daugherty expressed his eagerness to undertake new projects "when you want more of my sort of thing." He sent proposals for the national competition for the St. Louis, Missouri, Post Office, announced in February 1939, and in June he submitted a design to the 48 States Competition, the largest contest in the Section's history. Daugherty did not receive either commission.


With the installation of the Fairfield Court murals, Daugherty achieved mainstream recognition, if not celebrity status, for his work. Both Time and Life magazines did feature articles on the Stamford project, as did the New York Times. Daugherty did not fare well in the Time magazine piece, which referred to his style as "resembl[ing] that of a somewhat superficial Curry, a gentle Hogarth." Life, on the other hand, with its voluble handling of art criticism, was much more complimentary, presenting three color photographs of the murals, as well as other photographs of Daugherty in the process of executing the murals in his studio. He received the most praise from the art critic at the New York Times, who perceived his murals as "ingeniously and soundly designed, full of unforced wit and satire." [135]

Daugherty never achieved the elevated recognition that other American scene painters, such as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, and Grant Wood, among others, did in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, writers and art critics had published over twenty feature articles on Curry, and Benton was so well-known by 1937 that he had published an autobiography. Daugherty's publication record as muralist pales by comparison. [136] Disparity in fame between artists with similar styles and motivations is not uncommon nor unusual. In the case of the American scene painters of the 1930s, it was inevitable, and in the particular case of Daugherty and Benton it is revealing.

Benton's devoted friend, the art critic Thomas Craven, first brought his work to public attention in the 1920s. Further, the "Midwestern Triumvirate of American Regionalism," -- that catapulted Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood to fame -- was largely a promotional scheme created by the dealer, Maynard Walker. [137] Life magazine patronized Benton in the late 1930s. Thus by the end of the decade so much of Benton's work was accessible through publications, that his murals appear to have dominated art to the extent that work of other artists, upon first glance, is likely to appear derivative.

Contemporary critics often mentioned Benton's work as a lucid and effortless way to describe Daugherty's, unequivocal evidence of Benton's renown within the art world of the 1920s and 1930s and Daugherty's relative anonymity by comparison. It is thus provocative to explore Daugherty's and Benton's similar visual style as modernists. [138]

The relationship between Daugherty and Benton as artists is as compelling as it is complex. They share markedly similar trajectories in their personal lives and professional development as muralists. Both were native Midwesterners, born within two years of each other. During their adolescence both lived in Washington D.C.. and received training at the Corcoran Gallery's School of Art (both attended concurrently at least in 1903-04). As avid readers, they frequented the Library of Congress, where their curiosity about the building's painted ceiling led to their first encounter with mural painting. Both artists traveled and studied in Europe (Daugherty in England between 1905-07 and Benton in Paris between 1908-11), and both artists moved to New York City in 1911, where they experimented with abstract color theory. Daugherty's association with synchromism, as mentioned earlier, developed through contact with A. B. Frost, Jr., while Benton learned synchromism from Stanton MacDonald-Wright and his brother, Willard Huntington Wright. Between 1918 and 1919, Daugherty worked for the U.S. Navy, as a civilian camouflage artist at Newport News and Baltimore's ship yard, while Benton served in the Navy as a architectural draftsman at the Norfolk Naval Base.

Despite the uncanny coincidences in their professional lives, Daugherty and Benton had considerably dissimilar personalities and temperaments. While Daugherty was quiet, retiring, and earnest, Benton was opinionated, aggressive, and egotistical. Both artists, however, were liberal-minded supporters of Roosevelt. They integrated ethnic minorities in to their work and embraced industrialization as a means to improve society. One characteristic trait they had in common was a folksy sense of humor and flair for satire that emerged often in their art.

It is possible that Daugherty and Benton at least knew each other as early as March 1916, when Benton's synchromist paintings were exhibited in The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters held at the Anderson Galleries in New York. [139] Daugherty's paintings were not included in the exhibition, but it is unlikely that he would have missed seeing the exhibition, since the show coincided with his introduction to synchromism by Frost.[139]

They were in frequent contact with each other in the mid-1920s.[140] Their friendship never developed into a lively association, remaining more professional in nature than personal. Daugherty admired and respected Benton's talent, but in large measure, his art developed independent of Benton's and in essence diverged stylistically from his in the early 1930s, despite similar motives.

Daugherty wrote and illustrated Andy and the Lion in 1938, which won a Caldecott Honor Medal that year. The following year he wrote and illustrated Daniel Boone, which won the John Newbery Medal in 1940 as the year's most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. After 1940, his work as a book illustrator began to occupy an increasing amount of his time. For the rest of his life, book illustration served as the primary outlet for his creative imagination, and he achieved prominent success in the field.


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