Plastered on walls in public spaces and civic buildings, scattered in hotels and restaurants, hidden in private mansions, a plenitude of murals form part of New York City’s infrastructure.
Although American interest in the medium originated in the 1893 World Fair which presented visitors with numerous large-scale murals, the vogue for this form of artistic expression dates back to the Great Depression. With the introduction of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, federal funds were made available to support and promote public art. Muralism became fashionable.
During the 1930s political painting as a “tradition of the people” had been re-invented by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera or José Clemente Orozco. Their output influenced many American artists and curators of that era and reinforced the emergence of a socially engaged art.
Political murals energized New York’s visual cityscape. Community walls became prime spaces of interaction from which “site-specific” works emerged. Art was a weapon. Murals were a call to action, an attempt to motivate and organize the residents of a neighborhood. As such, they complement the “official” records that contribute to our historical understanding.
Chicago & Mexico
The 1893 World’s Fair at Chicago featured a large number of murals. Mary Cassatt, the Pittsburgh-born impressionist artist who had made a notable career in Paris, was commissioned to paint a mural for the Woman’s Building at the Exhibition. The neoclassical building itself was designed by Sophia Hayden, the first woman to graduate in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The exhibition may have been a male dominated affair, but women were at last allowed (grudgingly) to make their presence felt.
Cassatt contributed a triptych presenting “Modern Woman.” The mural depicted contemporary women passing knowledge to a new generation (central panel), women creating art, and women pursuing their dreams. The work was not well received. It disappeared after the end of the Fair and was destroyed in a fire shortly after. It may well have been the first American mural with a socio-cultural message.
The sight of colorful murals did create a stir. At a time that Gilded Age industrialists and speculators started building their grand urban mansions, large areas of wall and ceiling space were available for decoration. Architects and artists were eager to embrace the medium. Harry Siddons Mowbray painted a mural on the ceiling of the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park and another one at J.P. Morgan’s Library on Madison Avenue.
Murals were created on a variety of themes and included classical scenes; topographical images (around 1900 William de Leftwich Dodge painted views of ancient and modern New York for the lobby of the Astor Hotel in Times Square); events in American history; and stories of migration.
In 1930 José Clemente Orozco painted a series of murals at the New School for Social Research (NSSR) at West 12th Street. During this same period Diego Rivera presented himself with murals in San Francisco and Detroit. In 1932, he caused a storm in New York City when his mural at the Rockefeller Center was destroyed because it contained a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Having refused to remove the portrait, Diego was sacked by his patron.
The invasion of Mexican mural art set a precedent. Activist artists found a new way of making highly visible political statements. The ambition to create an “art for the people” proved to be a powerful aesthetic impetus. Muralism seemed to offer an alternative to the traditional relations between the arts, the public, and the political economy.
The 1929 economic crash and the subsequent Great Depression struck American culture hard. Artists lost their sources of income as the number of clients dwindled. In that climate, the patronage of the New Deal between 1933 and 1943 proved effective in aiding both established and emerging artists. Many thousands paintings and fine prints were created as well as large numbers of sculptures, innumerable posters, and countless objects of craft. New Deal support for the visual arts helped to establish a program of mural painting similar to that initiated in the 1920s in Mexico.
Born into a family of Islandic immigrants, Holger Cahill started his career at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) under founding Director Alfred H. Barr. He was subsequently appointed National Director of the Roosevelt initiated Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project. From the outset he stressed the social relevance of mural art.
In the introduction to the 1936 catalogue of New Horizons in American Art, an exhibition at MoMA of WPA-commissioned work, Cahill stressed that murals are “associated with the expression of social meanings, the experience, history, ideas, and beliefs of a community.” As a result muralism began to flourish in the United States. The Federal projects supplied both the funds and the walls.
Nearly three thousand artists produced over four thousand murals on various New Deal projects, the greatest concentration of which was to be found in New York. The exact number of murals executed in the city is not recorded, but it may have been close to four hundred. Many have been destroyed, but a substantial number has lasted (some in a better state than others) to inspire later generations.
Edward Laning was member of a group of artists known as the Fourteenth Street School. He and his friends ran inexpensive studios near Union Square, Manhattan, where they specialized in depicting “rough” scenes from their neighborhood which was a hotbed of radical politics. In November 1935, he was commissioned by the WPA to paint a mural for the Alien’s Dining Room on Ellis Island. Completed in May 1937, it depicts the role of the immigrant in the building of America and consists of eight episodes, each showing a phase of the immigrant’s contribution to the nation. The mural was seen as a first welcome by thousands of newcomers entering the country.
The WPA funded many murals to be painted for hospitals. In 1936, three African-American artists were commissioned to create a collection of paintings for Harlem Hospital. Vertis Hayes’s eight-panel Pursuit of Happiness follows the history of African-Americans, transporting viewers from Africa to America, then from the agrarian South to the industrialized North. Charles Alston painted two murals, titled “Magic in Medicine” and “Modern Medicine” which form a dialogue between African folk and Western scientific practices.
Georgette Seabrooke’s 1937 mural was named “Recreation in Harlem.” In a series of vignettes, the work depicts people reading, children playing, a couple dancing, a group of women chatting, and other scenes of leisure. More than half of the two dozen figures in the mural are women. The mural was meant to show black residents in Manhattan but, at the insistence of hospital officials, she added white figures as well.
Old King Cole in Manhattan
Early visibility of murals in New York’s public life inspired hoteliers and restaurateurs. They introduced a different and pre-political type of “community” art. It all started in 1906 when John Jacob Astor IV commissioned Maxfield Parrish to create a mural for the bar-room in The Knickerbocker Hotel, Astor’s new flagship hotel on 42nd Street & Broadway. The owner stipulated that the subject of the painting had to be the nursery-rhyme character of Old King Cole and that he himself would stand as model for King Cole’s face.
Parrish was not keen to accept the commission. He was an independent mind, unwilling to take instructions. Coming from a non-drinking Quaker family, Parrish was reluctant to create a painting to decorate a bar. Moreover, he had already painted a version of King Cole for the Mask and Wig Club, a private theater society in Philadelphia. However, a generous fee of $5,000 was too tempting to refuse as he and his wife had just resettled from Philadelphia to Cornish, New Hampshire, where they built a house and studio which they named “The Oaks.”
He began work on “Old King Cole” in a studio that was too small to hold the whole mural, so he painted the three panels one at a time. He placed the king in the center, flanked by jesters and guards. When it was installed at the hotel in 1906, it instantly became part of the fabric of a vibrant city that was eager for amusement. The Roaring Twenties were around the corner.
When the Knickerbocker closed in 1920, the mural went into storage, then briefly hung in a museum in Chicago, and was finally installed at the St Regis Hotel at 2 East 55th Street in 1932. There, at the heart of “Millionaires’ Alley,” it made the transition from artwork to icon.
The mural served as backdrop for scenes in The Godfather and other movies and the bar was frequented by the likes of Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe, who were happy to enjoy a Red Snapper (the original name for a Bloody Mary concocted in 1934 by the hotel’s bartender Fernand Petiot) and pose in front of King Cole.
Café des Artistes
The studio-style residential edifice named Hôtel des Artistes at 1 West 67th Street, near the west side of Central Park, was designed in 1916 and completed a year later. This ornate seventeen-story Gothic building had squash courts, a swimming pool, a theater, and a ballroom. It has been home to a long list of artists, performers and writers, including Isadora Duncan, Noel Coward, Fannie Hurst, Alexander Woollcott, and Norman Rockwell.
Located on the ground floor of the Hôtel was a restaurant. The Café des Artistes served the tenants who lived upstairs (their apartments did not have kitchens) as well as the general public. Among other patrons of the restaurant were luminaries such as Marcel Duchamp, Rudolph Valentino, and others.
One of the residents of the Hôtel des Artistes was Howard Chandler Christy, a painter and illustrator who today is remembered for his Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940), hanging in the US Capitol. Much in demand as a portrait painter, Christy had a long list of sitters, from William Randolph Hearst and Edward VIII (Prince of Wales) to Benito Mussolini and the First Lady Grace Coolidge.
In the early 1930s, the Café fell on hard times as New York suffered from the effects of the Great Depression. Christy offered to paint a mural with the promise that it would bring back “crowds” of curious customers. He composed nine panels of nudes in bucolic settings (the first of which was completed in 1935), frolicking in water, playing on swings, or posing with parrots. One of his models was Elise Ford, his companion in later life. The dreamlike quality of the work and its salacious nature both shocked and enticed the public. Christy’s prediction was correct. The Café became a hub where the creative, business and press communities met and mingled.
George Lang’s Stewardship
Restaurateur and food writer George Lang was born György Deutsch in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, the son of a Jewish tailor. He was trained to become a violinist, but war intervened. Aged nineteen, he was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. His parents were murdered in Auschwitz. György survived the war, changed his name to George Lange (using his mother’s maiden name), and moved to the United States in 1946.
He settled in New York to pursue a musical career but failed. Reflecting on that stage in life, Lang remembered in his delightfully titled autobiography Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen (1998) that on the occasion he heard Jascha Heifetz play a Mendelssohn concerto, he tossed his violin aside, realizing that he would “never be able to play like that.”
Instead, he used his creative drive to achieve perfection in the kitchen. After a successful career as a chef and banquet manager at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel that included preparing state dinners for Queen Elizabeth II (1957) and Nikita Khrushchev (1959), he was awarded the Hotelman of the Year Award in 1975. The same year, he bought and revitalized the Café de Artistes without damaging its original ambience.
Sadly, the Café des Artistes was hit by the Great Recession of 2007. Steadily mounting losses forced him to close the famous restaurant in 2009. Two years later, the restaurant was re-opened under a new (Italian) management team and renamed The Leopard at des Artistes. Howard Chandler Christy’s nudes survived and the murals remain there to excite new generations of diners.
Illustrations, from above: Harry Siddons Mowbray’s ‘Renaissance’ murals at J.P. Morgan’s Library on Madison Avenue; Edward Laning and assistants working on his mural project at Ellis Island, January 1937 (Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 12); Recreation in Harlem, 1937 by Georgette Seabrooke; Maxfield Parrish, Old King Cole at the St Regis Hotel, East 55th Street. (View from the hotel bar); and the Leopard at des Artistes, formerly: Café des Artistes on West 67th Street, with one of Howard Chandler Christy’s murals.