The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

8. American "High" Renaissance
Bowdoin's Walker Art Building and Its Murals

H. BARBARA WEINBERG, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Walker Art Building at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (Plate 70), is a quintessential late nineteenth-century American building. It so clearly characterizes the taste known as American Renaissance that it might be labeled "High" Renaissance. 1 Likewise, the building's mural decorations may be considered paradigms of American Renaissance taste in painting. The building was the product of a single vision, that of Charles Follen McKim, and represents a condensation of ideas that had been evolving in American architecture for at least two decades. The murals are the product of four different artists who participated in the American Renaissance movement. These artists belonged to two distinct artistic generations--Elihu Vedder and John La Farge were at least fifteen years older than their colleagues, Abbott Thayer and Kenyon Cox--with La Farge and Cox being separated by more than twenty-one years. The muralists also had differing backgrounds, and each brought a different load of artistic baggage to his commission. The results, then, reflect the range and evolution of American Renaissance taste in mural decoration and constitute almost a textbook of that style.

The task of exploring the murals is much aided by the fact that Richard V. West, former Director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, published a very useful summary of the documentary material associated with the project in 1972, and Eileen Sinott Pols wrote a Master's essay on the building in 1985. 2 These studies might be read in connection with my brief essay to provide additional documentary material, especially the details concerning the individual mural commissions.

The term "American Renaissance" reflects the fact that many late nineteenth-century Americans--painters, sculptors, and architects--craftsmen, scholars, and collectors--politicians, financiers, and industrialists--identified with their counterparts in the European Renaissance of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. They felt that the Renaissance spirit of accomplishment had been recaptured in the post-bellum United States. The phenomenon is complex, but an introduction is readily available in the catalogue, The American Renaissance, 1876-1917, that accompanied the ambitious exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum in 1979. 3 For our purposes, it might suffice to say that American Renaissance self-confidence provoked re-creations of Renaissance traditions of style and working procedures.

McKim's Walker Art Building, designed in 1891 and completed in 1894, echoes Florentine Renaissance models, especially Filippo Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel ( 1446). Its original structure, which has been expanded, is in the form of a modified Greek cross with three galleries grouped around a domed sculpture hall (Plate 71). For the 12-by- 24-foot lunettes over the entrance to each gallery and over the main entrance to the building, McKim envisioned mural paintings like those he had already ordered for the Boston Public Library ( 1887-1888). McKim's desire to include murals at Bowdoin, and the spirit of cooperation that prevailed between him and the muralists, and among them all, were self-conscious efforts to re-create Renaissance design and studio practices.

A serious Renaissance revival seems to have been entirely appropriate to the American cultural spirit of the late nineteenth century. However, the stylistic evolution of the American Renaissance depended in large measure upon another important late nineteenth-century American artistic phenomenon: American artists' desire for French training. 4 This desire was nourished by

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