New Look at New Deal Murals

Curious about the fabulous murals in the heart of our capital city? Enjoy a six-block walk in Trenton led by David Leopold, guest curator of Charles W. Ward: Paintings for People, on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum through Feb. 14, 2010.

Mr. Leopold will take registrants to see landmark examples of 20th century mural-making, including three New Deal murals by Charles W. Ward, Everett Shinn’s Ashcan School tour de force, and N.C. Wyeth’s iconic General Washington’s Reception at Trenton. (Pictured, above, is a detail of Charles Ward’s post office mural in Trenton.)

THESE were desperate times. People were out of work. Artists, who have a tough time earning income under the best of circumstances, were especially hard hit. “When the economy is down, the last thing people think about buying is art,” says Mr.Leopold.

And so a former classmate of FDR, who just happened to be an artist, urged the president to do something. On Dec. 8, 1933, the head of the Civilian Works Administration announced the formation of the Public Works of Art Project to provide employment for artists and, at the same time, enhance federal buildings.

Charles Ward, the son of a Trenton machinist, made history by creating the first New Deal post office mural in the U.S.

Remarkably, only 11 days after the PWAP program was announced, Ward was on the weekly payroll to create a mural on the subject of Trenton’s wire and pottery industries for the Trenton post office, “Progress of Industry.”

When Everett Shinn painted his mural in 1911, it was considered a masterpiece of American Modernism, according to Mr. Leopold, but its style was traditional and it could have been painted 100 years earlier. “Even though Shinn spent six months trying to gain the atmosphere of the factory, Ward had worked in the factory and knew it intimately,” says Mr. Leopold. “Shinn was viewed as a person from the city. His mural was lily white, while Ward’s, 20 years later, was multiracial.”

Post offices were selected for the New Deal projects because the murals, depicting regional history and industry, would be accessible to all. What was then the Trenton post office is now the Federal Courthouse, and all the murals are still intact. Ward drew on his own experience in the factories to bring the viewer inside, and created a panorama of workers rendered in a modernist style. For “Progress of Industry,” he even incorporated his father’s and his own image in the upper right hand corner. The scene includes tall black stacks belching smoke and a large tilted cauldron pouring molten metal.

The postmaster at the time complained about the African-Americans in the painting, as well as two women, whom he perceived as being “unAmerican,” says Mr. Leopold. The postmaster requested cutting off parts of the painting so it would fit in a space flanked by two eagles, without obscuring the symbols of the U.S. government.

Objecting, Ward embarked on a letter-writing campaign to government officials and a New York Times art critic, who rallied to the cause and helped convince the postmaster to find sufficient space for the full mural.

Ward’s next two murals for the Trenton post office were “Rural Delivery” and “The Second Battle of Trenton.” After that, he went to Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to create his final post office mural, “Cotton Pickers.” Here, he had an opportunity to paint a heroic display of African-Americans at work. Although he was commissioned to paint just the cotton picking, he used multiple perspectives to paint everything from picking to dressmaking in factories. He included high-tension wires of the six cotton mills and the power plant in town.

Born in New Jersey’s capital city in 1900, Charles left school as a young teenager to apprentice alongside his father at Trenton’s American Steel and Wire Company. To further his career, Charles took night classes in mechanical drawing at Trenton’s School of Industrial Arts. After seven years, he was able to attend school full time, and upon graduation in 1926 was offered a teaching job.

Ward declined the offer and instead enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with Bucks County Impressionist Daniel Garber and muralist George Harding, among others. From Harding, Ward learned that murals are fine art with a purpose, and you could get paid for working on them. Also, he liked that murals were owned by everyone and could be seen and shared, says Mr. Leopold. Ward was able to pay for school from his savings while working at the mill, as well as doing labor at the school.

At the Academy, Ward won a traveling scholarship – the $1,200 enabled him to embark on a five-month trip to London, Bruges, Bordeaux, Biarritz, Interlaken, Madrid, Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Paris.

Upon returning, he settled in rural Carversville, Pa., 25 miles from his birthplace. He made Carversville his home for the rest of his life (except for three years after his marriage, when he had to return to work in the factory in Trenton), and painted what is perhaps his most well-known canvas.

“Goldie Peacock’s House” depicts a man hoeing a plot of earth behind a row of houses and trees. One house, Goldie Peacock’s, has a crooked balcony. The bent man, balcony and bowed trees contrast with the straight lines of the other houses for a charming effect.

The four post office murals helped Ward finance a trip to Mexico, where Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco were creating some of the most compelling murals of the day. But once Ward arrived, he became enchanted with the town of Taxco, with its winding cobblestone streets, whitewashed houses and red tile roofs, which may have reminded him of Carversville. A sort of “south-of-the-border Carversville,” says Mr. Leopold.

In the exhibition catalog essay written by Mr. Leopold, Ward is quoted as saying “I wanted to see the people, hear the talk – hear what they have to tell” and “Material at every turn. Pigs, chickens, turkeys, burros roam all over.”

Up until this period, Ward had used what Mr. Leopold calls a cloisonné style, with heavily outlined figures. In Mexico, his brushstroke became freer, and he even veered toward semi-abstraction.

Perhaps the greatest drama in Ward’s life centered around his relationship with Anna Karlberg. He met her at the School for Industrial Arts, where Anna, a sister of the receptionist and a gifted pianist, had modeled. They dated for a number of years, and when Ward returned from Mexico he asked Anna to marry him. She said she only wanted to be friends, and the rejection sent Ward into what he termed “a siege of destruction.” He destroyed most of his artwork, except for “Goldie Peacock’s House,” which he unstretched and used as a blanket to sleep under.

According to Mr. Leopold, more than 60 canvases were destroyed in a single day, as well as 15 sketchbooks. In this dark period, Ward stopped producing and became suicidal.

But the story ends on a happy note: Anna reconsidered, and the couple wed in 1942. They had two daughters and returned to Mexico where, this time, Ward became enchanted with Oaxaca. The family spent five months there.

Upon returning to Bucks County, Ward retained his freer style and replayed Mexican imagery for the rest of his life, says Mr. Leopold.

“With an almost precisionist’s sense of order, he reduced barns, houses and their shadows to geometric shapes,” writes Mr. Leopold. At his Bucks County home he had a chicken coop and an old schoolhouse he used for his studio, and he bicycled everywhere so he could see, hear and smell the scenery. “Ward had found his romantic ideal of landscape near the Delaware.”

  • Charles W. Ward: Paintings for People is on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa., through Feb. 14, 2010. Admission costs $10 adults, $9 seniors, $7.50 college students, $5 ages 6-18. Hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon- 5 p.m. 215-340-9800; Curator David Leopold will lead a six-block walk in Trenton Dec. 4, 1-3 p.m., to see landmarks of 20th-century mural-making; $25, advance registration required, directions and location to be announced.

About ilenedube

Ilene Dube is a writer, artist, filmmaker and curator. Her short stories have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and anthologies, and hundreds of her art reviews, features and essays have appeared at Hyperallergic, Philadelphia Public Media, Huffington Post, Sculpture Magazine and other media. Her short documentaries on art movements of central New Jersey have been featured at the New Jersey Film Festival, Nassau Film Festival, Trenton Film Festival and elsewhere.
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