John White Alexander and the Construction of National Identity: Cosmopolitan American Art, 1880-1915

By Sarah J. Moore | Go to book overview
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Pausing in Pittsburgh: Constructing Social
Cohesion at the Carnegie Institute, 1905–1908

Between 1905 and 1908, Alexander painted a vast series of murals celebrating Pittsburgh’s rise to a vital cultural center through the toil of labor at the Carnegie Institute. “The Crowning of Labor,” as the entire cycle was called, was constructed around the male body that served as both the physical and ideological armature of the murals. The choice of the male body was, in part, an obvious one as the cycle was dedicated to labor and industry.

At the same time, the male body functioned as an ideologically charged site that resonated with contemporary discourses about masculinity, race, social cohesion, and national identity. Alexander’s idealized construction of the laboring male body as physically vigorous, autonomous within the workplace, and socially homogenous camouflages the complex realities of the lives of laborers in Pittsburgh and suggests the degree to which tension and discontinuity between art and cultural ideology inform the mural cycle. At the same time, the murals resonated with the implicit presence of Andrew Carnegie, the benefactor of the Institute, and his rise to staggering power and accumulation of vast wealth in the city of steel. In fact, the cycle can be interpreted as a pictorial affirmation of Carnegie’s idiosyncratic interpretations of Social Darwinism—Carnegie believed that the wealthy were morally and intellectually superior to the poor and as such had a responsibility for their cultural stewardship—and of his benefaction that transformed the city of Pittsburgh from being exclusively an industrial center without even the allusion of cultural refinement to a center for art and culture on an international scale.1 Finally, the murals can be read within the cultural and historical context of the progressive era, roughly 1900 to 1920, during which time American cities faced the vexing challenges of swelling and increasingly heterogeneous population, immigration, labor unrest, among others, through various civic reform initiatives designed to promote patriotism, nationalism, citizenship, and social cohesion.

In a spring 1905 letter to Alexander discussing the mural commission, William N. Frew, president of the Carnegie Institute Board of Trustees, wrote, “I would like it and it seems fitting that on the walls of our splendid building should appear the work of a Pittsburgher who has so greatly distinguished himself.”2 Alexander’s international reputation as a portraitist and figure painter, as well as his previous experience with mural painting— Alexander was one of the nineteen artists commissioned to paint murals at the Library of Congress a decade earlier—amply qualified him for this prestigious commission. Moreover, Alexander’s professional and personal association with John Beatty, first Director of Fine Arts at the Carnegie Institute, may have played a role in his selection; Alexander worked closely with Beatty on the Carnegie International exhibitions that began in 1896 and were the annual showcase for contemporary cosmopolitan artists, such as Alexander, whose work held currency on an international scale.3 Finally, Alexander’s local family ties—Alexander grew up in Allegheny City, just outside of Pittsburgh— appealed to the Institute’s Board of Directors, as was made clear in the letter from Frew, and to Andrew Carnegie himself, who likewise spent a part of his childhood in Allegheny City, and who sought justification and confirmation of Pittsburgh as a thriving cultural center, thanks principally to his largesse and benefaction.4 Alexander agreed to the commission to decorate three floors surrounding the central staircase of the new east entrance of the Carnegie Institute as well as the main hall of its third floor—more than 5,000 square feet of wall space—for which he would be paid $175,000,


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