Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 5, 2009 from William E. Taylor and Harriet G. Warkel et al., A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1996) by permission of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Indianapolis Museum of Art directly through this phone number or Web address:


The Mural Tradition

by Edmund Barry Gaither

Murals have a long history in American art, extending back to projects such as John Trumbull's proposal for the Capitol in Washington. Such works typically advanced civic themes and were generally associated with governmental or religious commissions. Thus, after the launching in 1934 of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, interest in murals rebounded. Fed partly by the need to buttress national cohesion in the face of the Depression and partly by a resurgence of regionalism, with its emphasis on American narratives, murals were a dominant visual form through the second quarter of the century. Leading figures associated with mural activity and regionalism include Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and Thomas Hart Benton. As modernism, especially abstract expressionism, gained in importance in the fifties, however, murals, figuration, and historical depictions came to be viewed as parochial, conservative, and outdated. The easel painting and its association with individual expression and personal iconographies quickly carried the day as American artists increasingly sought a place within international modernism.

Interestingly, African-American artists were out of sequence with this development. They often felt obligated to give way to the collective sense of self-worth needed to survive the onslaught of Jim Crow, racism, and pervasive injustice. They wanted to offer their community a narrative that would inspire the challenge, while also teaching history not yet acknowledged in the larger society. In this context, black muralists such as Aaron Douglas, William Edouard Scott, Charles White, Hale Woodruff, and John Biggers valued the visual and didactic power of the mural. Their dedication to the task of restoring black peoplehood through heroic history paintings simply grew more vital after the Second World War. They did not, like their white American peers, retreat from mural making in the postwar period. An examination of murals by Scott and Woodruff offers an opportunity to explore African-American mural art during the first half of the twentieth century and to demonstrate the change from narrative to abstract content.


William Edouard Scott


William Edouard Scott, a gifted and versatile artist, worked during the first half of the twentieth century as an American realist with a deep respect for the lessons of impressionism. Having received sound training for a career as a painter, he furthered his development with study at French academies and also enjoyed the encouragement, guidance, and support of Henry Ossawa Tanner, the towering giant of nineteenth-century African-American artists.[1] Though born twenty-five years apart, both painters enjoyed exploring religious and genre themes, and both delighted in experimentation with light for its dramatic possibilities. Both also deeply respected the prevailing conservative canons of their professions, almost never venturing toward abstraction or other modernist explorations of the pre-World War II period.

Booker T. Washington, Hampton Institute graduate, founder of Tuskegee Institute, and voice for southern blacks, rejoiced when he thought Tanner, upon finishing The Banjo Lesson, 1893, was turning his attention toward the sympathetic presentation of black life through the visual arts.[2] His excitement proved to be premature, since Tanner did not choose to pursue this subject matter. It was Scott, barely a generation later but too late for Washington, who began to define this genre. Scott, in a sense, fulfilled the latent promise of the expatriate Tanner by becoming one of the earliest black painters of history themes and perhaps the first to paint Afro-Caribbean scenes for a popular, black audience.

A very productive artist, Scott executed many paintings, among them an extraordinary volume of murals. Before undertaking this essay, I was unaware of the extent of Scott's activity as a muralist, although his paintings had interested me for many years. Now I feel only the surface of his work as a muralist has been scratched. Many more questions, for which answers exist, need to be pursued. Scott will reward the thoughtful art historian who is really a detective at heart.

At the outset of my work, I had the benefit of a partial compilation of known murals executed by Scott.[3] The list specifically identifies more than forty sites where previous records indicate the existence of murals. The sites include eight churches, seven schools, two hospitals, seven youth centers, six government buildings, two hotels, one college, two field houses, five banks, and one newspaper office. In excess of forty other murals in churches and schools are mentioned, though no particular sites are referenced. Of the murals said to exist in specific places, quite a number, such as those in the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, were found. Many of the buildings where murals had existed have been renovated or demolished, and records of the paintings have been lost. This was true for the Wabash Avenue YMCA murals in Chicago. Still other sites are not extant because the companies or organizations no longer exist. In this category is the black Binga State Bank of Chicago. Some sites, such as Fisk University, acknowledge having paintings by Scott but possess no knowledge of holding murals. In a few instances, such as the Harlem YMCA, murals are still in place but too soiled and darkened to study. Occasionally, murals could be found, but the relevant records are missing or lost. Finally, provoking the greatest delight, new murals, such as Commerce, 1909, at Lane Technical High School, were unexpectedly discovered.[4] Scott and his mural production remain a rich field for new work.

Scott's murals merit several general observations, which, for the most part, hold true for works executed over the period from about 1910 to the mid-1940s. First, his approach remained rooted in realism, where he preferred naturalistic settings, plausible figurative arrangements, and a sense of physicality in the environment. He avoided heroic presentation, eschewing oversized figures and extraordinary feats in favor of a more democratic attitude. His murals are focused at eye level, and the figures who populate the paintings sweat, strain, laugh, talk, and labor in a context of equality. With the exception of specifically moralizing themes, Scott's murals seem honest, direct, and engaging.

Scott enjoyed the challenge of complex figurative compositions. Never did he shy away from massing large numbers of figures, whether in crowds or small ensembles. Obviously, he was comfortable with configuring groups in ways that make them seem naturally related to one another. When necessary, he added into the mix portraits of key personalities on whom the story may depend. In many cases, his portraits, appearing as they do within well-populated settings, are identified through his skill in revealing the person's character rather than by way of slavish attention to the rendering of details. For example, Abraham Lincoln is identified more through his gaunt face, lanky body, and impression of plain humanity than by his eye color or facial moles. By means of such broad characterization, Scott brought to his murals a psychological quality, a mood that helps shape understanding of the activity being portrayed.

In his more effective murals, such as Commerce, 1909 (fig. 79), Scott often constructed his composition so that light plays a leading role in defining both the character of the event and our sense of having an intimate relationship with it. The most frequently used device for this purpose involves introducing the light into the mid-ground of the painting and leaving the immediate foreground figures darkened. The result is that the viewer feels he or she is approaching the event along with the foreground figures and is drawn into the center of activity. We become, in a sense, intimate witnesses standing at the inner edge of the crowd. At its best, this is an exceedingly effective foil for setting up the vital center of the mural.

Scott often delighted in composing his murals as panoramas, very wide scenes in which multi-episodic adventures occur in contiguous spaces that flow into each other. These wide views, rich in compositional complexities, have a linear, cumulative quality that introduces into the mural a literal aspect of duration, since the scene must be panned sequentially for the viewer to comprehend its substance and intent.

A preliminary classification of Scott's murals might offer the following groupings: history themes or paintings interpreting or recalling some passage of our national saga; documentation themes or paintings recording nonpolitical aspects of our national life; religious themes or paintings interpreting the narratives of the Christian faith; and moral themes or paintings intended to convey a lesson in moral or social values through symbolic iconography and guiding text. This study examines more closely examples relevant to each of these aspects of Scott's mural art.

In the American mural tradition, the grand paintings not only celebrate formal history and its defining events, but also sometimes document the broader sweep of developments in society. Certainly Scott's 1909 mural Commerce, painted for the Lane Technical High School in Chicago while he was still a student at the Art Institute, serves this purpose. In a period of optimistic growth and development in the heartland, Chicago celebrated its industrial accomplishments.

Commerce is the third in a set of murals created by Art Institute students through an arrangement with the Chicago Public School Art Society and Mrs. Buckingham, its president, to pay tribute to the progressive growth of Chicago. The murals celebrate: 1) the operations of the steel mills, representing the production of raw materials for factory and assembly line operations; 2) the construction of skyscrapers, the cathedrals of modern cities and the dramatic evidence of the triumph of architecture over the limitations of space and natural construction materials; and 3) the vital commerce represented by shipping and receiving as essential elements of modern industrial flourish. The class president at the Lane School thought the "three panels form an admirable interpretation of modern industrial life," and she judged the works a success, as "the painters seem to have caught the spirit of industry and to have embodied it in a vivid and realistic way."[5]

Commerce is quite a remarkable mural, especially for an artist still in training. Showing a panoramic view of the busy wharf, the mural employs the unusual device of casting all the foreground figures in shadow and opening up the mid- and background areas with a wash of warm light. Scott buttresses a pyramidal compositional arrangement ascending from several barrels on the left and from a man towing a two-wheel dolly on the right. Surmounting the triangular mound are two men moving a large wooden crate. To the right, a second man stoops over a barrel, half lifting and half rolling it. Behind him a rotund fellow in a dark vest checks the inventory of things coming and going. All of these activities are revealed in brown tones, as if the viewer were emerging from a shed whose shadow is cast over the immediate foreground. In the middle ground, teams of men are loading ships, barges, and boats, which, with their masts and chimneys, merge into the greenish light of the distant water and sky.

Commerce offers a dynamic vista of a vitally active and energetic port bustling with trade. Its figures are the characters of a Walt Whitman poem: masculine, muscular, sweaty, purposeful, quintessentially American. They are immigrant, regionalist, black, and white. Like the characters of other Scott murals, they seem to share a common bond of democratic labor and joint enterprise. In that aspect, they suggest an optimism about equality that is pervasive in Scott's historical and documentary murals.

History constitutes an important interest for Scott, who seemed especially transfixed by the stories describing relationships between President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In the painting Lincoln at Springfield (Amistad Research Center, New Orleans), Scott fully characterized this encounter between the reluctant emancipator and the activist ex-slave and orator.[6] The scene as depicted posits a belief in democratic justice as a possibility, if not yet a fact. In a panoramic format, Scott shows a lanky and tall President Lincoln, wearing an intent expression and attired in a dark gray suit, black bow tie, and yellow vest. In front of him, extending a hand as if in greeting, is Frederick Douglass, wearing brown pants and a long, dark frock coat. Though Douglass is slightly shorter than Lincoln, the two standing men dominate the center of the painting with their encounter. Closing the space behind Lincoln is a train from which he has just alighted. An elegant white couple fills the space beyond the Lincoln/Douglass exchange. Behind Douglass are a comparable black couple, an older black gentleman, and a nanny and child. The startling thing about the scene is the absolute equality given both sides of the picture. Douglass is not a petitioner but rather an equal man with Lincoln. Springfield symbolizes the possibility of equality in the post-Civil War era. In fact, Lincoln and Douglass became recurring figures in this dialogue about freedom and manhood.

Another Lincoln/Douglass encounter brought Scott significant attention. On April 2, 1943, he was selected to execute a painting of Douglass appealing to Lincoln to authorize black regiments to fight in the Civil War. The award followed a nationwide competition in which 360 designs were submitted by 124 artists.[7] The guidance given to the artists was that their theme should "reflect a phase of the contribution of the Negro to the American Nation."[8] Winning murals were to be installed in the lobby and library of the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, D.C. The jury, headed by painter Nan Watson, consisted of Dr. William J. Thompkins, Recorder of Deeds; Captain Henry Billings, muralist; Kindred McLeary, muralist; James V. Herring, chairman of the art department at Howard University; and Edward B. Rowan, Fine Arts Section, PBA/WPA.[9] Considerable care was taken to assure that the selection process would be as fair as possible. Artists were required to send their full color oil or tempera sketches without signatures. Using a system of tracing numbers, the winning entries would be matched with the names of their creators only after the selection process was completed.

The process gave what one observer considered an ideal result: "The high quality of the work shown, the variety of approach, the geographical distribution of the seven successful artists and the fact that four of them were men, including one Negro painter and three were women is a source of satisfaction to all concerned and illustrates the impartiality and the care which the jury showed in making the selection."[10] Of Scott's winning sketch juror Rowan wrote, "Your design was chosen on the basis of the sincerity with which you depicted both Lincoln and Douglass, and the spirit of reality that you succeeded in putting into the setting."[11]

As finally realized, the painting was trimmed to fit the 5' 10" by 5' space allocated. This was accomplished by removing portions from the left and right sides of the work. Additionally, the composition was simplified a bit: a large table lamp, a Union soldier-guard, and a background figure, all of which appeared in the sketch in the newspaper, were removed. The painting retained its sense of an honest encounter. In Lincoln's office, the president sits on the left with a paper in his hand and casts a pensive gaze downward. His sunken face is accented by his bow tie. His limp right hand dangles over the arm of his chair. Opposite Lincoln stands Douglass, who addresses himself forthrightly to his Commander in Chief. Standing behind the table, two of Lincoln's aides witness the exchange. Scott, in his manner of depicting the exchange between Lincoln and Douglass, suggests that the fiery orator is here the aggressive speaker. Whereas Douglass, hands extended slightly, shifts his weight forward while speaking to Lincoln, the president appears to avoid looking into Douglass's eyes and concentrates on listening to his words. His face gives no hint of his response, though it shows clearly his concern with the issue at hand. Lincoln is portrayed as receiving information that he must now ponder carefully before he acts. His aides seem to distance themselves from the matter under discussion.

The appeal Douglass brought to Lincoln was problematic for the president. At a point when the Civil War was proving much more difficult than the Union leadership had expected, Douglass asked Lincoln to authorize the creation of regiments of black soldiers. Although blacks had fought in both the Revolutionary War (1775 - 83) and the War of 1812, many whites resisted the notion that African Americans could be effective soldiers. Lincoln, who believed that there were differences between the races, had to decide whether to authorize such enlistments as part of the extreme measures needed to win the war or simply to honor existing discriminatory practices. In the end, Lincoln authorized the black musters, and almost immediately the Massachusetts 54th Regiment was formed. Among its men were the two sons of Frederick Douglass.

For a commission fee of $500, Scott completed a second mural for the Recorder of Deeds building.[12] This work, Dedication of the Recorder of Deeds Building, 1944, is less satisfying than Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln. The twenty-five figures on an announcement platform, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the First Lady, appear somewhat stilted and overly conventional. It seems to capture a moment just before the beginning of the ceremonies. The president is leaning to the side to receive a short briefing from an aide. His platform guests, including several high-ranking military officials and at least one black figure in the left, back row, are awaiting the commencement of the program. Overhead, two flags hang in the breezeless air. Flags and shields bearing stars and stripes adorn the banister, which too firmly separates the world of the picture from that of the viewer. Perhaps Scott felt the weaknesses of this composition and sought to give the work greater energy through a more creative use of light. In a letter to Rowan, overseer for the commission, Scott wrote, "I thought it would add to interest and color to break sunlight across the front of the platform to form a 'V,' leaving the two shields and lattice work in shadow."[13] Despite this innovation, the mural remains below the high standard set by such early murals as Commerce.

Many of Scott's murals were religious in character, and several of his most interesting mural complexes appear in church settings. Perhaps Tanner, a primarily religious master, exerted some influence on the younger painter in this direction. Maybe rapidly growing black churches, responding to the flood of the great migration and its lingering steady stream of southern black migrants, saw in Scott's murals both the opportunity to celebrate a black artist in their midst and to distinguish themselves as progressive and successful congregations. No matter what the influences, they converged to foster the perception of Scott as a church muralist.

I use the phrase "mural complexes" quite deliberately, since Scott often painted numerous individual murals, though not necessarily adjacent to each other. In some cases Scott seems also to have executed portraits at the same time. These may be entirely independent of the murals. An example is the complex of paintings Scott executed in 1943 for the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. At Pilgrim, eight irregularly shaped panels adorn the area of the two choirs and the altar. In the narthex of the church he painted a frieze as well as two portraits. The environment of the church is rich in paintings that present the life of Christ as well as aspects of the life of Pilgrim Baptist Church.

The Pilgrim murals are built on a long history of religious paintings by Scott. Among the most ambitious earlier undertakings were the series of more than a score of paintings executed for the Burdsal Wing of the Indianapolis City Hospital in 1915.[14] These "decorations" were in two groups: In the women's medical ward were murals titled Four Scenes from the Life of Christ. A contemporary report in The Indianapolis Star of October 31, 1915, details the murals and their locations. The account offers an expansive view of the scope of the project, which, remarkably, was completed in just half a year. According to the article, the lobby featured the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Annunciation to Mary, and three panels showing Moses, St. John, and St. Paul. In the main room were The Boy Christ, the Three Magi and the Star in the East (fig. 80), The Nativity, Christ with Simeon, Christ as Carpenter, Flight into Egypt, and Christ in the Temple with the Elders. A nearby corridor continued the story with two large panels showing Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me and He Who Is without Sin. Overlooking the sundeck are five more scenes: Zacharias in the Tree, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ before Pilate, Christ Appearing to Mary after the Resurrection, and The Triumphant Entrance into Jerusalem. Finally, two forty-foot panels in the upper level of the main room present the women of the Old and New Testaments.

These scenes were designed to underscore practical and spiritual ideas about the central place of children in society. Consider, for example, the panel presenting Simeon and Christ. The scene depicted is taken from verses 25 - 32, chapter 2, of the Gospel according to St. Luke. Scott describes the interior of the temple as spacious and opulent. Simeon seems frail but ramrod-straight as he, holding the baby Jesus, raises one hand in thanks for the blessing of this encounter. Joseph, with a cage containing doves brought as an offering, stands somewhat awkwardly nearby, and Mary peers over his shoulder. Christ appears as a ruddy child with a full head of hair. Neither Simeon, Joseph, or Christ approximate the prevailing image of pale, Nordic innocence so popular on calendars and in church publications. Rather, they all seem a bit dark and Near Eastern. The Indianapolis Star reporter asserts that Dr. William Weir Stewart (sic) posed for the Joseph figure and Miss Martin, a supervising nurse at the hospital, posed for Mary.[15] From the Simeon story, Scott probably meant for visitors and expectant mothers to recognize that children are a blessing for which they should be thankful.

Among other sets of religious murals by Scott is the series executed for the Stuart Mortuary in Indianapolis in 1948. These, too, center on scenes from the life of Christ and use some previously cited compositional devices. For example, in the three-panel mural depicting the crucifixion, both the Roman soldier holding his sword on the left and the bare-shouldered figure on the right appear in shadow, as if the light source were in front of them and the viewer behind. A similar handling of light applies to the pair of soldiers in the center panel, who are engaged in preparing the vinegar and gall to be administered to Christ later.

The moment chosen for primary depiction comes before the actual crucifixion. The post hole, already dug, appears just to the left of the soldiers in the foreground of the center panel. The soldiers and execution aides shown in the left panel are standing over the tool box containing the hammer and spikes needed to attach the Savior to the horizontal bar of the cross. Simon of Cyrene, visible at the end of the shaft of the cross, helps Jesus drag it to Calvary, or Golgatha. Close by, soldiers wait for the crucifixion and priests and scribes prepare to mock and taunt him. In the distance Christ's mother and followers find their way along behind him. I am tempted to speculate that the moment in the story was chosen partly because Simon of Cyrene has often been visualized as a black man. Scott has rendered this figure a little darker than the others in the scene.

Since murals are often placed in public buildings at the behest of civic or religious institutions, they frequently are expected to advance a moral argument fostering appropriately desirable behavior. Constructive Recreation: A Vital Force in Character Building, a mural in the lobby of Chicago's Davis Square Field House, is a work in this tradition. The large mural is developed in three divisions. In the left portion is a surveyor along with representative players of tennis, football, and baseball. Associated with the cluster of athletes are a football and basketball, both of which appear almost as icons. In the distance, which separates the athletes from the central allegorical grouping, is a javelin thrower.

At the middle of the mural a seated image of Columbia (Liberty) with a torch and wreath is flanked on one side by Drama reading from an open book. Behind Drama is a globe and the mask of Tragedy. On the other side, Painting holds a palette and brushes. Both allegories are women.

To the right is a grouping consisting of eight women in a doorway. The central woman holds a silver urn. In the foreground of the composition is a ewer in a stand. The remaining women are busy in various activities, such as carrying baskets and filling tall vases. In the far right corner, Scott's signature and the date of the painting are partly obscured by the molding of the frame.

The three sections of the mural offer a coherent interpretation. The left figurative grouping underscores the Grecian ideal of a healthy, physical body as a proper vehicle for noble character development. Associated with athleticism are the virtues of competition, discipline, team playing, and enhanced physical beauty. The central figurative cluster, with its allegorical personages, underscores the role of the expressive arts in developing well-rounded character traits and in acquiring the knowledge vested in humanistic and artistic studies. These are an essential part of the balanced life needed to make liberty with responsibility possible.

In the absence of a legend, I offer an interpretation of the figurative grouping on the right based on its apparent context. The last cluster of women represent productivity, plenty, and regeneration. These are aspects of character that make family and community possible and are the dividends of self-discipline, learning, competition, and team effort rightly applied in one's life. Certainly, this interpretation is in the spirit of the title of the painting, Constructive Recreation: A Vital Force in Character Building.

Although Scott took up the mantle Tanner declined, he nonetheless remained conservative in his treatment of race. Like nineteenth-century African-American artists, he steered clear of the emphatic embrace of black physiognomy. But like twentieth-century black artists, he regarded matters impinged upon by race as acceptable subject matter. He is entirely comfortable with portraying Frederick Douglass as clearly black, yet in works such as Commerce, where he had considerable discretion about whom to represent, few black figures appear. In religious works, figures such as Simon of Cyrene are racially ambiguous. This contrasts sharply with the next generation of African-American painters of religious subjects, such as Boston's Allan Rohan Crite, whose Holy Family and many of the saints are frequently black. Scott seems to have enjoyed an unusually balanced view of race and artistic production, giving equal importance to general history and religious themes, but never retreating from the treatment of black historical themes and not afraid to include black figures in his mix of American characters.

Scott remains an exceedingly interesting figure in African-American as well as American art. A figurative and realist painter with great talent, flexibility, and wide interests, he doubtlessly deserves a wider reputation. His murals and other works merit finding a broader audience and greater critical assessment.


Hale Aspacio Woodruff


"For the fifteen years that he taught in Atlanta, Woodruff's art address[ed] itself to the social and historical realities around him," noted Winifred Stoelting.[16] Indeed, all of Woodruff's murals prior to The Art of the Negro, which was completed after he accepted a professorship in art education at New York University, depicted heroic sagas from black history or, like Shantytown, portrayed crushing rural poverty. Like many other American artists who built careers before the late 1940s, Woodruff was deeply impressed by the revolutionary thrust of Mexican social art. His "debt to Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco," asserts one art historian, "illustrates the influence some Mexican muralists had on African-American artists in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s."[17]

Over his career, Woodruff painted six murals and mural clusters. These are: The Negro in Modern American Life: Agriculture and Rural Life; Literature, Music and Art, completed in 1934; Shantytown and Mudhill Row, completed in 1934; The Amistad Mutiny, 1939; The Founding of Talladega College, about 1940; Settlement and Development, dedicated in 1948, and The Art of the Negro, installed in 1952. These murals and clusters may be divided into three groups according to their artistic maturity.

Group one consists of The Negro in Modern Life, Shantytown, and Mudhill Row, which are early, not entirely successful projects. Woodruff himself was unhappy with Shantytown and Mudhill Row despite the favorable comments in local newspapers.[18]

The Amistad Mutiny, Founding of Talladega College, and Settlement and Development constitute the second group. These works share a strong commitment to the episodic, narrative tradition and rely on figurative and textual elements to render their messages clearly. Additionally, these works are strongly disciplined by a historical script.

Alone in the last group is The Art of the Negro, a mural cluster characterized by freedom from literal, visual reportage and by an enthusiastic embrace of African-inspired, modernist aesthetics.

The murals of group one grew out of opportunities advanced via the Graphic Arts Division of the WPA, which, in 1934, "provided Woodruff and a student, Wilmer Jennings, funds to produce two sets of murals -- The Negro in Modern Life: Agriculture and Rural Life; Literature, Music and Art."[19] The first mural, consisting of four panels, was placed in the David T. Howard School, in Atlanta, although this facility has been renovated and the murals are no longer on display there.

The second mural, with its two panels Shantytown and Mudhill Row, was installed in the School of Social Work at Atlanta University. Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and a leading figure in what was to become known as the New South, said of the work: "Both of them hurt with garish poverty and their stark bleakness. Yet [Woodruff] has not exaggerated a single line nor forced a point.... Both of them, especially Mudhill Row, are splendid illustrations of the modern school. The climbing hill of raw, red clay, eroded and twisted is a vista of ugliness and harshness. It speaks with a thousand silent tongues."[20] Although obviously interested in the southern scene at the foundation of his Atlanta development, Woodruff lacked the temperament for effectively depicting the brutal, debilitating effects of poverty and racism. He was much better, as shown by prints such as Country Church, at capturing the solitary character of rural, or "quarter," life.[21] Moreover, such themes often could be more successfully presented in the smaller format of prints or easel paintings.


The Talladega Murals


Woodruff's first critically important mural, The Amistad Mutiny (figs. 81 - 83), was dedicated in 1939. A separate but related mural celebrating the founding of Talladega College in Alabama was completed in 1940.[22] The Amistad Mutiny mural project corresponded with the opening of the new Savery Library and the centennial year of the Amistad mutiny. Both mural projects paid honor to the American Missionary Association (AMA), which had grown out of the Amistad revolt and helped found Talladega College. With energy and excitement, Woodruff spent three months researching the events surrounding the mutiny. Nine months was spent painting the murals and preparing them for installation.[23]

In the course of his study, Woodruff, using documents at the Yale University Library and the Archives of the New Haven Historical Society, became more and more fascinated by the extraordinary tale of heroism. He found a rich body of study materials, including paintings and prints made at the time.

What are the essentials of the Amistad mutiny or revolt?[24] In summer 1839 Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, Cubans from Puerto Principe, purchased fifty-three Africans from the Mende ethnic group, who had been transported, in violation of international law, to Cuba by Portuguese slavers. To move the slaves from Havana to Guanaja, Ruiz and Montez hired Ramon Ferrer, owner and captain of the ship La Amistad (Friendship).

On the third day of the journey, the captives revolted under the leadership of Sing-be, who later came to be known as Cinque. In the mutiny Cinque and his confederates slew the cook and the captain and forced Ruiz and Montez to sail the ship toward the sun. Their effort to return to Africa was defeated because at night, using the stars, Montez and Ruiz sailed north instead. On August 26 the Amistad anchored off Long Island, New York, to secure food and provisions. The ship and its cargo were seized and taken to New London, Connecticut. Following the discovery of Ruiz and Montez tied up below the deck, Cinque and his followers were arrested. The Spanish government demanded the release of the ship and slaves and the return of both to their "rightful" Cuban owners.

By now American abolitionists, seeing the windfall opportunity presented by this mishap, took action, and in September 1839 Lewis Tappan, Simeon S. Jocelyn, and Joshua Leavitt, all New Yorkers who met as the "friends of liberty," formed the Mende Committee to defend the Amistad captives. Right away, they appealed for public support to cover expenses. Eventually, with the help of John Quincy Adams, the case for the captives was argued before the U. S. Supreme Court, where, on March 9, 1841, Justice Joseph Story ruled that the Mendians were free and should be "dismissed from custody of the court...to go without delay."

Without a ship or jobs, the captives now had to rely for shelter and food on their friends at the Mende Committee. Eventually, the surviving thirty-five Mende men and women returned to Africa accompanied by five missionaries and teachers.

To provide continuing help for the returned Mendians, Lewis Tappan and his associates founded the American Missionary Association in 1846. Shortly thereafter, the AMA launched missionary work in the Caribbean, Africa, and the American South. In time the AMA played a role in the establishment of many black colleges and normal schools, including Atlanta University, Talladega and Tougaloo colleges, and Straight (presently Dillard) University.

Drawing on works such as A. Hewins's 135-foot painting The Massacre, related popular engravings, Nathaniel Jocelyn's Portrait of Cinque, and other historical records, Woodruff prepared three small cartoons, or mural studies, showing in detail all aspects of the proposed mural.[25] From local records he was able to make all but four of the seventy-five faces in the mural portraits. These studies were then, using grids, produced on paper at full scale. Through a system of perforations, the drawings were transferred to the canvases and final work was begun. Athough several students assisted Woodruff with this undertaking, his principal aide was Robert Neal. Woodruff said of Neal: "He kept my sketches and equipment in order. He transferred the cartoons to the actual canvas. He posed for all of the hands and figure gestures that appear in the mural. (His hands were expressive, by nature, artistically structural and adaptive to what I was trying to do.) I don't know what I would have done without him."[26]

Three dramatic moments were chosen to tell the Amistad story: panel one shows the mutiny in progress, panel two presents the trial, and panel three depicts the return of the Mende captives to West Africa. Each panel is accompanied by interpretive text in the form of poetic verses. Appearing in association with the first panel is:

The Schooner will be ours
Ours to steer back, by the sun, to our shore
To freedom.
Our hands free.
Our legs walking with a big stride
And our faces upward to our Mountains.

Panel two has the following lines:

Circuit Court,
District Court,
The Amistad case debated
Men standing up for the slaves
Men standing up for the Spaniards
Men standing up for justice and truth
Men standing up with fire in their voices
For the honor of America and democracy.
Circuit Court
District Court
Supreme Court

The third panel bears the inscription:

Out of New York another ship goes, The Gentleman
This time black freedom moves in her sides
And the fighters for this freedom have sent the race
To teach the heathens in the hunter's land
The fire is lit
The Smoke is rising...

Woodruff approached the murals in a straightforward way. Each panel is organized around a single dramatic event, although related subthemes are generally present. The viewer is positioned as an observer with a window onto the scene. In panel one, the Mutiny Aboard the Amistad (fig. 81), four groups of combatants dominate the shallow space of the ship's deck. Space shortage is further emphasized by the foreclosing effect of the lower tip of the sail and the base of the mast. In the distance, an angry and agitated sea swells. In the group of combatants, the smooth musculature and dark skin of the Africans, clad only in loincloths, contrasts sharply with the generally light garments of the whites. Amid the rhetorical gestures of the fighting men, the machetes stand as emblems of revolutionary victory.

Cinque, the leader of the revolt and therefore its central figure, shares the spotlight with his lieutenants. But for his recognizable face, he might go unidentified. This fact underscores the collective nature of the mutiny. Captain Ferrer, in an attitude of prayful petition before a falling machete, likewise indicates that the "whites" were a collective force of oppression.

In the somewhat harsh light falling on the scene, subplots are clearly evident. To the left, colonists ponder escaping overboard into the sea. Near the mast, the slave who had come on board with the Cubans and is dressed like a Spaniard climbs the ropes. And in the far right corner, the revolt continues.

The wide center panel, The Trial at New Haven (fig. 82), set in shallow space inside the New Haven courtroom, is divided by the bar into a side for the defense and a side for the prosecution. On the defense's side, Cinque, arms folded, stands resolute and dignified. Behind him are the other Mendians, Roger Baldwin, Arthur Tappan, and Reverend Jocelyn. In the third row sits Kale, author of the letter to John Quincy Adams, wearing a green skull cap. At the end of the same row, a man holds Margue, a young girl captive. On the prosecution side are Montez, the ship owners, and their lawyer, and James Covey, the cabin boy turned interpreter. Behind them are Lewis Tappan, Josiah Gibbs of Yale Univesity, and the reverends Day, Whipple, and Bacon. Ruiz, standing and pointing to Cinque, whom he accuses of murder and piracy, dominates this side of the panel. Justice Smith Thompson, though near the compositional center, is a mere backdrop to the charged encounter of accused and accuser.

The Return (fig. 83), like the Trial, is sharply divided. On the edge of the African coast, indicated by a palm frond, stands Cinque, transformed into Joseph Cinquez and accompanied by missionaries, teachers, and advisors, including James Steele and Henry Wilson. Close by is the young girl Margue as well as the returning party's books and school charter. On the opposite side, along with an additional white supporter, a grateful Mende offers a prayer for their safe return home on that January day in 1842. In the vista separating the figurative groups, jubilant returnees in a long boat are making their landfall.

The Amistad murals present Woodruff as a gifted visual storyteller capable of assimilating a vast amount of data and reworking it into a coherent statement. Relying on the hard edge and clear, bright color typical of midwestern regionalists and compositional ideas inspired by the Mexican tradition, Woodruff's Amistad murals are triumphant. Not even his weakness in achieving fully effective psychological integration in the compositions mitigated against their success. Of them, W. E. B. DuBois exclaimed: "Woodruff of Atlanta dropped his wet brushes, packed the rainbow in his knapsack and rode post-haste and Jim Crow into Alabama. There he dreamed upon the walls of Savery Library the thing of color and beauty portrayed on the opposite page: to keep the memory of Cinque, of the Friendship (La Amistad) and the day when he and his men, with their staunch white friends, struck a blow for the freedom of mankind."[27] To promote the mural, DuBois raised money and produced color prints of it, which were distributed as inserts accompanying a related article in Atlanta University's literary journal, Phylon. Life magazine sent Eliot Elisofon to photograph the murals for a feature; however, the German invasion of Poland preempted publication of the spread.[28]

Woodruff executed a second three-panel mural, similar in style and treatment, for the Savery Library at Talladega. In the Founding of Talladega College, the first panel depicts episodes associated with the underground railroad and the abolitionists who helped launch education in the post-Civil War South.[29] Escaping slaves await a riverboat that will ferry them north toward freedom and perhaps even Canada. Sympathetic whites who assisted such departures would later form the American Missionary Association and prove great friends to southern black education. Panel two, well populated with students, teachers, and well-wishers, shows new students sitting before the school's registrar, who, with quill in hand, accepts fee payment in the form of farm produce and livestock. This arrangement, practiced until the mid-twentieth century, allowed the children of the rural poor to afford college even though they were still partly in a subsistence or sharecropping economy. Prominent in the scene is the pointing figure of William Savery and the white abolitionists/educators. Woodruff lightens the serious tone of the mural with minor distractions, such as the escaping chicken and the peering old man beyond the picket fence. The last panel, with its busy carpenters and masons and with the architect, Mr. Fletcher, observing, recalls the building of Savery Library.

On a plot that had formerly been a prep school for white young men, Talladega College was founded in 1867 as a college for African Americans. Transforming ex-slaves who had been denied basic education into literate, capable people was a difficult task that might have been fatally discouraging except for the great importance the Freedmen attached to learning. Thus the mural honored the contribution of ex-slaves such as Thomas Tarrant and William Savery, both of whom sought and gained help from General Wager Swang of the Freedman's Bureau in securing AMA assistance for the fledgling endeavor. AMA's money helped underwrite the purchase of the college's first building, Swang Hall. AMA was also playing a leading role in the construction of Savery Library, named for the former slave.

The Talladega murals are Woodruff's most ambitious and successful undertaking in this format prior to the Second World War. The Amistad mural, which would become his best-known large-scale work, marked his place -- even if not fully acknowledged -- as a significant American painter of heroic sagas and narratives.


The Contribution of the Negro to the Growth of California


Contrary to popular impressions, black businesses often aspired to play a major role in the cultural life of their communities. By so doing, they helped improve the neighborhood where they belonged while accepting "responsibility not only to support but to stimulate all aspects of community development. And what better way to encourage a people to greater accomplishments than through a constant reminder of their splendid heritage."[30] Additionally, they sought to compare their own values with "elements of vigor, social protest and group consciousness inherent in the paintings and sculpture...[that enhance] understanding of the life and thought of the American Negro people."[31]

Against this backdrop, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded in Los Angeles in 1925, commissioned murals for the lobby of its new home office, which opened in August 1949. Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston, who had earlier completed the Harlem Hospital murals, were each invited to paint one large, historical panel depicting some aspect of the contributions of blacks to the making of California. Paul R. Williams, architect of the building, worked closely with Woodruff to assure that their colors and stylistic approaches would be consistent and complementary and that their works would enhance the decorative design and architecture of the lobby.

The Contribution of the Negro to the Growth of California, as the mural complex was called, consisted of two parts, Exploration and Colonization: 1527 - 1850, executed by Alston, and Settlement and Development: 1850 - 1949, painted by Woodruff. Each panel was 9' 4" by 16' 5". Both were based on research by Miriam Matthews, a librarian and author of "The Negro in California from 1781 - 1910," and Titus Alexander, a historian and donor to the Golden State Art Collection.[32]

Woodruff approached the production of his mural in fundamentally the same way as the Talladega murals a decade earlier. Its language is that of the historic, figurative, realist painting. Yet Settlement and Development does present new challenges. More episodes, many widely separated in time and place, had to be accommodated and the resulting population of figures greatly increased. It became necessary to stack the events shown, thereby sacrificing single-point perspective. Text had to be introduced to help guide understanding of the overlapping story elements, and a certain sense of crowding ultimately became inescapable. Nevertheless, the mural reads clearly from the left to the right.

In the distant upper left corner, gold miners with their oxen pause outside their mine shaft. The gold-mining industry developed many black specialists, such as Moses Rodgers, as well as mine owners such as Gabriel Simms, Abraham Freeman Holland, and James Cousins. These black miners sent more than a million dollars to the south to purchase or gain freedom for family and friends. Immediately to the right of the miners is Captain William Shorey, whose whaling ship appears on the ocean behind him. Shorey mastered whaling vessels in the Pacific waters in the late nineteenth century. Also in the rear but still further to the right, black workmen are busy constructing Boulder Dam. The San Francisco bridge, under construction by African-American workers, completes the right portion of the rear ground.

In the middle ground on the left, the office of The Elevator, a militant black newspaper of the 1860s, is evident. Its staff are at work beneath a marquee with the subtitle "A Weekly Journal of Progress." Though California joined the Union in 1850 as a free state, minorities were routinely discriminated against and subjected to racially motivated injustice. Against this background, the Convention of Colored Citizens of California was formed in 1855 in San Francisco and, along with the The Elevator, led the struggle for fairness and justice in the Golden State.

Immediately below The Elevator and along the foreground, soldiers protect the transcontinental railroad crews and cargo. Black regiments of the 9th and 10th cavalries and of the 24th and 25th infantry units of the United States Army provided necessary protection from Indians and bandits as the railroad moved west. Wearing a head scarf, Mammy Pleasant, a civil rights militant and contributor of $30,000 to finance anti-slavery initiatives, including John Brown's revolt at Harper's Ferry, stands with one of her beneficiaries. Behind them, John Brown, gun in hand, stands boldly. A little past the saloon along a street in the middle ground is the Pony Express office. A black rider carries his mail pouch over his arm. Over its brief life, a number of black horsemen served the Pony Express, including George Monroe.

Bridging both the middle and foregrounds, the next passage of the mural celebrates the activist role played by the Convention of Colored Citizens of California. In front of its banner, protesters raise placards saying "Open Schools for Our Children" and "Justice Under the Law." Work on the Golden State Mutual building fills the remaining portion of the right side of the mural, where African Americans are evident in the architectural and construction teams.


The Art of the Negro


The Art of the Negro murals (figs. 84 - 89), completed in 1951, are Woodruff's finest and most aesthetically resolved. They bring together his interest in African art and his growing association with abstract expressionism or the New York School. These works merit far more attention than they have received. As Mary Schmidt Campbell accurately observes: "Although in 1952 there was nothing in black American art comparable to the Atlanta University murals in their effort to place African American art in a large cultural context, the murals have gone virtually ignored since they were installed. They have never been reproduced or discussed in any text on black American art, though they are certainly more innovative than the Talladega murals and more relevant to Woodruff's mature paintings."[33] Indeed, these murals, freed from strict historical narrative, allowed Woodruff to take a much broader, more metaphorical approach. We gain far more insight into Woodruff's personal idioms and ideas from The Art of the Negro than from any of the preceding large-scale works.

The circumstances that led to the commission to execute the murals for the Trevor Arnett Library reach back to 1931, when, at the invitation of President John Hope, Woodruff accepted a post at Atlanta University.[34] While teaching in Atlanta, and during the period of the completion of the Talladega murals, Woodruff recalls suggesting to Hope that such a large painting might be desirable at Atlanta University. His suggestion was not taken up at that time.[35] In 1945, however, Atlanta University president Rufus Clement offered Woodruff extra pay if he would undertake a mural project for Trevor Arnett Library, and though Woodruff was shortly to leave Atlanta for a post at New York University, he happily committed to executing the murals.

At the same time, Woodruff's artistic direction was changing. He was abandoning realism for abstraction, and his longstanding interest in African art was finding formal expression in his work. He was also struggling to give his art a more personal cast and to free it of direct social commentary. The Art of the Negro murals become the summa of these converging concerns.

Woodruff was fascinated with form in African art, a facination not without a spiritual dimension, as suggested by his comment that "I look at the African artist...as one of my ancestors."[36] Indeed, this sentiment underlies the motivation for Woodruff's second series of library murals. In describing his intention, he said, "I wanted [the mural] to be an...inspiration to students who go to the library, to see something about the art of their ancestors."[37]

The Art of the Negro, as the series of six panels was called, sought to capture the interplay between African art and the other great cultural traditions of the world. In the tradition of Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois, Woodruff located Africa's art as existing in a dynamic relationship with both Western and non-Western artistic heritages. Though recognizing the brutalization of African culture and peoples in the colonial era and its aftermath, Woodruff nevertheless asserted that African rebirth and cultural resurgence are permeating forces in the art of Europe and the Americas. The Art of the Negro is thus not so much a history of the continental heritage of black peoples as it is a praise-song for its pervasive impact on form and iconography in the twentieth century.

The Art of the Negro, installed in the round-headed bays of the upper rotunda of the library, has the following individual panels: Native Forms, Interchange, Dissipation, Parallels, Influences, and Artists.[38]

New York's rich stock of museums, galleries, and book sources, as well as Woodruff's particular interest in Asante gold weights, inform the generally open iconographies in the murals. Institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art fed Woodruff's desire to see African art in a comparative way.

Native Forms (fig. 84) has the greatest concentration of African forms and references. Woodruff's intention in Native Forms was, I believe, to establish the primacy and global impact of African civilization under the bold and emphatic presence of the African muse. Native Forms is a visual poem about cultural origins. Presiding over it is a composite fetish (Shango-like double axe on head) holding a staff and standing atop a base filled with African symbols, including the crocodile, bird, and turtle. To the left, hunters masquerading as animals dance. To the right, six warriors with masks, shields, and spears advance. Dogon inspiration in the masks seems apparent. Beneath the warriors are two sculptors at work. One sits on a traditional stool and carves with a short knifelike tool. Three closely related passages lie along the lower margin of the panel, all relating to African cave paintings. In one longhorn cattle or antelopes are running, and in another several figures, including a drummer, rotate along with a bird image. The opposite lower corner shows a cave artist painting. His image anticipates the art of modems such as Henry Moore, an English sculptor drawing heavily on the notion of archetypal forms. A mask with superstructure and several abstract forms completes the panel.

Interchange (fig. 85) is organized around a series of conversations in which cultural representatives of African, Roman, Greek, and Egyptian traditions exchange cultural ideas. On the left, African and Greek musicians (griots and bards) converse. Across on the right, three African and Roman soldiers with spears and shields discuss soldiering. In the foreground next to the Egyptian friezes, three ancient builders confer. Above them are sculptures, including a stylized horse. A passage of Egyptian/Nubian hieroglyphics supports architectural features, including Doric and Egyptian columns and a western Sudanic mosque tower. Recognition of the passage of time -- that great container of all civilizations -- is recalled in the Greco-Roman stele, or grave marker, at the right margin of the mural. Interchange forcefully posits the rich interplay between black and nonblack civilization in the ancient world.

Imperialism infuses the conflict evoked in Dissipation (fig. 86). Loosely inspired by the rape of Benin City in 1897, Dissipation offers a metaphor for the assault on African art and heritage represented by European colonialism. The Benin empire, its greatness extending back before the coming of the Portuguese to the West African shores in the 1480s and evidenced by its masterful bronzes and ivories, continued in a much weakened condition until the late nineteenth century. When a party headed by British vice-consul J. R. Phillips entered the empire at the time of the Igue ceremonies without the Oba's (king's) permission, all members were slain. Shortly thereafter, the British marched against Benin City and, following the flight of the court and royal family, occupied it. In the wake of the invasion, soldiers and others took thousands of works of art -- indeed the Benin royal treasure -- to Europe, thereby acquainting Europeans for the first time with the figurative bronzes and ivories of a traditional African kingdom. Woodruff, depicting the plundering of Benin, frames the action of the British solidiers destroying or stealing the sculptures within leaping, engulfing flames and falling city towers. Although the image of the Oba, with his ceremonial sword, is visible in front of the falling towers in the left mid-ground, the presence of Senufo and Basonge masks along with Asante combs and Dogon crocodiles confirms that Woodruff's comment is meant to apply to African heritage at large.

Parallels (fig. 87) makes a statement about comparative cultural vitality. In the upper central portion, Woodruff has given prominence to several North American totemic sculptures, including one showing a stylized figure surmounting a drum. Flanking this totem are a mask with a superstructure and the elaborated sculpture resembling a ceremonial staff. Reminiscent of some ancient Nubian amulets, a Pre-Columbian Mexican figure fills the left corner of the panel. Adjacent to it and falling along the bottom of the picture is a painting showing an Amerindian ritual dancer. Just right of the center appears a Sepik River-inspired mask, perhaps symbolizing, more generally, cultural artifacts of the Pacific Islands. Interspersed throughout the remainder of the painting are irregular enclosures containing mythic forms, glyphs, and emblems suggesting the heritages of China, Japan, India, and other great civilizations of Asia. This mural underscores the common form in the vocabulary of cultures worldwide.

Influences (fig. 88), the fifth panel, develops the idea of cultural cross-fertilization. Several specific hybridizations are immediately evident. In the lower left corner a reclining female suggests the work of Henry Moore. Directly above is a series of Haitian veves, the sacred writing of voudou practice representing the names of the Loas or lieutenant spirits. These veves are executed with flour and earth and are related to traditional sand paintings. Near the center in a strongly vertical box appears a drawing of a female nude, suggesting the origins of cubism, the fundamental movement of modern art. This point is restated in an African sculpture of a female nude, at the right margin of the panel. In alternating boxes subdividing the picture plane appear paintings in modern abstract tradition and glyphs suggesting cave paintings or "tribal" notations. The panel asserts that cultural traditions are reciprocal, each giving and receiving new influences and growth through direct encounters. Modern art, in this respect, is a product of the fusion of African formal ideas and Western aesthetics and art practice. Its newness derives from a peculiar parentage rooted in the sustained, intimate cultural contacts generated by global colonialism, slavery, and capitalism.

Only the panel Artists (fig. 89) reminds us of Woodruff's earlier commitment to representationalism and figuration in his art. Here the concept, organization, and composition of the panel are immediately evident. In the upper register, the African and Western muses sit together. Symbolically, the Greco-Roman and the African cultural families are exchanging ideas on beauty, truth, etc. on an equal footing. Beneath them seventeen black American artists, heirs to both traditions, are assembled. These creative figures symbolize the cultural backgrounds from which artists of the world have come. On the rearmost rows from left to right are Joshua Johnston, the Baltimore limner; Henry O. Tanner, the most celebrated of nineteenth-century black artists; Jacob Lawrence, contemporary inventor of the serialized mural; Edward Mitchell Bannister, bronze medal winner at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition; Nada Kane, South African cave painter; Julien Hudson, nineteenth-century portraitist; Juan de Pareja, school of Velazquez; Patrick Reason, portraitist of the abolitionists; S. Gomez, school of Murillo; Antonio Franciso Lisboa, Aleijadihno (The Little Cripple), eighteenth-century sculptor; Iqueigha, thirteenth-century sculptor; Horace Pippin, self-taught master; Sargent Johnson, African-inspired twentieth-century sculptor; Charles Alston, muralist, painter, and sculptor; Hector Hypolite, mid-century Haitian master painter; Robert S. Duncanson, nineteenth-century landscapist and first black American artist to achieve international recognition; and Richmond Barthe, sculptor. Together, this assembly is a tribute to the continuity and expansion of black contributions in the arts.

Romare Bearden said of Woodruff that "it was his love for African sculpture which...touched his most secret self and which accounts for the unity underlying his painting."[39] It is certainly this love which permeates The Art of the Negro at Atlanta University. Using what Campbell called "self-contained zones" -- devices that first appeared in the 1950 painting Carnival -- Woodruff frames African-inspired passages and constructs meaning in The Art of the Negro. Freed from the realistic and representational demands of history painting, he uses abstraction -- which he attributes to the influence of African art -- to unify each panel. The net effect is, as Campbell notes, "a wall covered with colorful hieroglyphics. With enough figurative elements performing descriptive actions to give the essential aspects of the history, they most effectively make their point in the way in which they visually relate the forms of African art to the modem idiom or to forms from other cultures."[40] The Art of the Negro murals were Woodruff's definitive integration of the myriad influences promoting modernism and abstraction with the desire to teach the lessons of black history and reclaim the credit due African ancestors.

Clearly, Woodruff's key murals are The Amistad Mutiny, Settlement and Development, and The Art of the Negro. On these works hang his critical place as an American muralist of accomplishment. The importance of The Amistad Mutiny derives from its early place as a heroic, historical mural celebrating a specifically black emancipation theme. It builds on earlier panoramic paintings, such as William E. Scott's Lincoln at Springfield, while departing from the more culturally based murals like An Idyll of the Deep South (1934) of Aaron Douglas, the much simpler murals like Post Office (1935) of Archibald Motley, and the bas-reliefs of Richmond Barthe. The Amistad murals, unlike Charles Alston's 1937 Harlem Hospital mural Magic and Medicine, do not rely heavily on the use of Africanized forms. Rather they are perhaps the earliest example of the complete assimilation of the influences of the Mexican muralists in African-American art. In this, however, Woodruff barely preceded Charles White, whose Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy followed in 1943. The Amistad Mutiny, as a pioneering statement of black social realism, was, as DuBois noted "the most important work done by a black artist" when it was unveiled and dedicated on April 15, 1939.[41]

Perhaps one of the most salient observations about Woodruff's murals is that they all appear in traditionally black institutions. This fact underscores the vital role played in American art by historically black institutions and makes more urgent the need to move American art history toward a greater inclusiveness and truthfulness. Accomplishing this transformation remains work for present and future historians of American art.



1 See Tanner-Harper-Scott: A Mentor and His Influence (Washington, D.C.: Evans-Tibbs Collection, 1985).

2 Washington's hopes for Tanner in this regard are discussed in Dewey F. Mosby and Darrell Sewell, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Catalogue (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York: Rizzoli, 1991).

3 A list of murals appears in Peter J. Roberts, "William Edouard Scott: Some Aspects of His Life and Work," Master's Thesis, Emory University, 1985.

4 Jeff Favre, "Restored Glory," The Chicago Tribune, 8 June 1995, 1 - 2.

5 "The Art Student," Lane Technical High School, about 1909.

6 This painting was probably planned as a mural study. Additional research in this direction is currently going forward.

7 Lucille Morehouse, "Art: New Interest Develops in Work of William Edouard Scott," The Indianapolis Star, 2 May 1943, 19. This article provides considerable information about the competition. I have relied heavily on the data.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Edward B. Rowan, Letter to W. E. Scott, 5 April 1943.

12 Roberts, 60.

13 W. E. Scott, Letter to Edward B. Rowan, 26 June 1943.

14 "Decorates Burdsal City Hospital Wing," The Indianapolis Star, 31 October 1915.

15 Ibid.

16 Winifred Stoelting, Mary Schmidt Campbell, and Gylbert Coker, Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1979), 32.

17 Samella Lewis, African American Art and Artists (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 65.

18 Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art, 60.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 "Quarter" was a term used to refer to a dense cluster of houses associated with a plantation or specific family.

22 The date given for the completion of the mural Founding of Talladega College comes from a biographical chronology. Hale Woodruff papers. Amistad Research Center, New Orleans.

23 Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art, 67.

24 This account relies heavily on Clifton H. Johnson, "The Amistad incident and the Formation of the American Missionary Association," New Conversations.

25 Data on Woodruff's research and working methods are taken from Winifred Louise Stoelting, "Hale Woodruff, Artist and Teacher: Through the Atlanta Years," PhD Dissertation, Emory University, 1978, 229 - 40.

26 Ibid., 229 ff. From a Woodruff letter to Winifred Stoelting, 2 August 1977.

27 Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of his Art, 33.

28 Ibid., 78. The article never appeared in Life magazine.

29 Hale Woodruff, Artist and Teacher: Through the Atlanta Years, 240, 308 - 9.

30 Historical Murals (Los Angeles: Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company), 1965, 4.

31 Selected Pieces from the Afro-American Collection (Los Angeles: Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company), 1965, unpaginated.

32 Historical Murals, 4.

33 Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art, 36.

34 Ibid:, 16. Atlanta University merged with Clark College and is now known as Clark-Atlanta University.

35 Ibid., 26.

36 Ibid., 75.

37 Ibid.

38 The interpretation advanced is based largely on documents and diagrams from Hale Woodruff's papers in the Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. I am grateful to Paula Allen, Curator of Art, for her help.

39 Hale Woodruff: 50 Years of His Art, 7.

40 Ibid., 36.

41 Ibid., 33.


About the Author

Edmund Barry Gaither is director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, a position he has held since 1969. He also serves as a special consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he has organized eight exhibitions, including Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston. He has taught at Harvard College, Wellesley College, Massachusetts College of Art, Spelman College, Boston University, and the University of Minnesota. He was cofounder and first president of the African American Museums Association (now the Association for African American Museums).


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 5, 2009, with permission of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2009.

This essay appeared in the catalogue to the exhibition A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans, which was on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (February 25 - April 21, 1996); Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago (May 11 - July 6, 1996); Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston (September 23 - November 30, 1996); and Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga (January 19 - March 2, 1997).

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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