The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview
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Before an altar in the center of the picture is a noble grasping the hand of a farmer in the promise that the law shall be observed alike for all.

It will be in the district courtroom under this picture that the cases of the government against the alleged members of the wall paper, towing, railroad and docking trusts will be tried in the fall. 23

Without his intending so, Mowbray's imaginary event, painted in an early Renaissance pictorial mode and set in the early history of common law, came to be an allegory with direct meaning for contemporary political events in a courtroom where representatives of the workers joined those of government to ensure prosecution of illegal trusts that diminished the public good.

From 1916 until his death in 1928, Mowbray painted few murals--a corridor in the Annex to the Morgan Library, and some murals for a church in his town of Washington, Connecticut, were all he produced, and he turned down a large commission for the Wisconsin State Capitol. In fact, he painted very little at all. Between 1904 and 1911, Mowbray made well over $100,000 from his murals, and the family was well-off from the production of nitroglycerin, of all things. He devoted much time to the Commission of the Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., and the American Academy in Rome.

But Mowbray did produce a series of easel paintings, quite different from his murals, that depicted the life of Christ. These religious paintings are greatly simplified into flattened surface patterns and have little of the elegant stylizations associated with Pintoricchio and Umbrian painting. In works like The Flight into Egypt (Plate 69) it appears that Mowbray sought inspiration in yet earlier Italian painting. In doing so he seems to have joined the nineteenth-century tradition of Pre- Raphaelite pietistic painting, beginning with the Purist and Christian strain of the German Nazarenes, such as Franz Pforr and Friedrich Overbeck, and Italians such as Tommaso Minardi. This tradition continued in France in the mid-century through Christian and philosophical art in the work of Hippolyte Flandrin and other followers of Ingres, and into the late nineteenth century with the work of Peter Lenz and artists of the School of Beuron.

Mowbray's journey through the stages of virtuoso paintings of suggestive Oriental fantasies, to Italianate rooms in which the visitor was "enmeshed in a quietly shimmering web of arabesques and color," 24 brought him again to Italy when he finally adopted "primitive" Italian art that placed him in a longer tradition of nineteenth-century religious art. Ironically, he adopted the very art--naïve, abstract, and iconic-- that his colleagues who supported the High Renaissance ideals of the American Academy in Rome feared would corrupt the standards of design they considered to be perfection.

For an account of the decorative project, see G. A. Reynolds , "The Mural Decoration of the Appellate Division Courthouse," Temple of Justice: The Appellate Division Courthouse, Exhibition Catalogue, Architectural League of New York/ Association of the Bar of the City of New York, 1977, 29-35. Catalog of Works of Art Belonging to the City of New York, New York, 1911.
For an account of the murals, see M. Scheinman, "Altgeld Hall, the Original Library Building at the University of Illinois: Its History, Architecture, and Art," M. A. thesis, University of Illinois, 1969.


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