The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

7. H. Siddons Mowbray
Murals of the American Renaissance

RICHARD MURRAY, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Between the Centennial and our military involvement in the First World War, the public aspect of art in the nation changed dramatically. Inspired by classical and Italian Renaissance examples, architects, painters, and sculptors joined with public officials to create architecture thas was bright, large, and highly decorative, and symbolic of a new sense of cosmopolitan self-importance. Chiefly after 1893, hundreds of murals were painted in virtually all kinds of public buildings--state capitols, courthouses, libraries, municipal halls, and schools. Befitting their Beaux-Arts and Renaissance inspired architectural settings, many were amalgamations of sixteenth-century religious compositions, the "sacred conversation" group, and mid-nineteenth-century French emblems of Justice and Equality. Edwin Blashfield's Power of the Law, painted in 1899 as part of the vast decoration of the Appellate Division Courthouse in New York (Plate 60), 1 is a fine example of this kind of mural, which transposes saints and donors into historical figures representing cultural virtues, and the Virgin into a symbolic figure of Justice.

Many other murals depicted local historical events with painstaking accuracy of costume and fidelity to historical accounts. They were paeans to a past considered to be uncomplicated and heroic in contrast to a present--which was rarely depicted--that was complex, directed by economic and political forces few could understand, and commonplace. Although labor was usually treated allegorically, in sharp contrast to the strident confrontations of labor and management, infrequently artists depicted workers as heroic, such as Newton Wells did in his mural painted at the University of Illinois in 1900, The Forge of Vulcan (Plate 61), in which steelworkers fashion a huge propeller shaft emerging from a glowing furnace. 2

A major function of public murals, whether allegorical or historical, was to provide national symbols for a teeming and increasingly varied population and to bring a vast immigrant population into cohesion with prevailing orders of politics and culture. Historical scenes presented detailed accounts of events in local or national history that those in authority deemed to be important milestones, although they tended to mythologize events or gloss the facts, and allegorical and symbolic murals placed American justice and cultural virtues in the realm of authority and perfection. Much was made of the notion of the "melting pot," by which, according to the conventional wisdom of the time, a new American was being forged from the disparate racial and ethnic elements of the world. Several artists addressed the propaganda directly, the most forthright being a mural titled The Melting Pot, painted in 1915 by Vesper Lincoln George for the Edward Lee McClain High School in Greenfield, Ohio (Plate 62). From the docks on the left advances the steady stream of emigrants, swarthy southern and eastern Europeans, Slavs, and an Asian. At the center is the enthroned figure of America presiding over the melting pot. Accompanied by the biblical inscription "And God Hath Made of One Blood all Nations of Men to Dwell on the Face of the Earth," and "Equality, Liberty, Opportunity, Prosperity" (but, significantly, not "Brotherhood"), each ethnic type passes by the crucible and is changed into the new American, which happens to be a fair-haired and fair-skinned Anglo-Saxon, ready to continue building the nation through labor and education. The idea of the painting was based on Israel Zangweiller's play of 1911 called The Melting Pot. 3

But in a time when the Italian Renaissance

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