When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter

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My first work location was in an abandoned church IVX on Tenth Avenue where the Federal Theatre Project had built a paint frame for the use of scene painters. This was a platform about twelve feet above the floor that ran across the width of the church. There was a protective railing at the front of the platform, and behind it four great wooden frames suspended on pulleys from the ceiling and balanced with counterweights. We stretched our four canvases, each about 9 by 18 feet in area, on these frames. I borrowed Reginald Marsh’s projector and enlarged my designs to the full scale from lantern slides made from my drawings. To paint the top of the picture, I had only to lower the entire canvas toward the floor. To paint the lower part, I raised the picture toward the ceiling. While we worked on our platform, the Theatre Project’s actors, dancers, and musicians rehearsed on the floor below us. It was an ideal situation, and the work went rapidly forward. Lloyd Goff joined me as assistant, and together with James Rutledge and Etta Pick we ground our own colors (with invaluable technical advice from Ralph Mayer) and proceeded with the underpainting of all four panels simultaneously. Dr. Lydenberg came in from time to time to watch our progress.

Mr. Stokes visited us frequently and took particular interest in the Mergenthaler panel. It pleased him that I pictured the Brooklyn Bridge outside the windows of the New York Tribune building, where Mergenthaler first installed his Linotype machine. “I was the first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge,” he told me. “I was about fifteen years old, and I stood all night at the Manhattan approach to the bridge. A great crowd gathered, but I was in the forefront, and when the ribbon was cut, I made a dash for it and reached Brooklyn ahead of anyone else!” One day he came in to tell me that he had been thinking about the kerosene lamp I showed hanging over Mergenthaler’s machine. “I remember,” he said, “that in 18801 went with my father to New Jersey to visit Mr. Edison, who was in my father’s employ. He had made a clock for my father which, instead of striking the hour, said, ‘Twelve o’clock and all’s well.’ He had incorporated his newly invented phonograph in the clock. I know that by this time he had already invented the incandescent electric lamp. A year later, in 1881, electric light was installed in Mr. Morgan’s house next door to us, and in 1882 our house was wired for electricity. I’m sure that by 1883, the date of your picture, there would have been electric light in the Tribune building.” I painted out the kerosene lamp and painted in an electric bulb. Then he decided he might have been premature and sent me back to kerosene.

This was his only active intervention in the painting itself, and I didn’t mind the trouble it gave me because his reminiscences were fascinating. One day he talked about Sargent’s portrait of his wife, which was then on loan to the Brooklyn Museum. “I commissioned Sargent to paint it as my wedding present to her,” he said. “To look at it you would think Sargent had dashed it off in a few days of brilliant brushwork. Actually, we posed for it thirty-six times! At first Sargent had her right hand resting on the head of a greyhound dog, but he didn’t like that, so he painted the dog out and painted me in instead. When he was finally satisfied, he touched his brush to his palette, backed away from the easel all the way across the studio, poised the brush like a lance, and charged, shouting, ‘Pwtache, pis-tache, /?«-tache!’ and touched the painting. And do you know, the highlight on the engagement ring stood out a quarter of an inch! Many years later the Metropolitan Museum wanted the painting for a big retrospective exhibition of Sargent’s work. Sargent had insisted on the final word on what was to be shown, and I wired to him in Boston, where he was painting the murals in the Boston Public Library, asking his permission. He wired back, ‘Certainly, but under no circumstances allow anything to happen to the highlight on the engagement ring!’”

Our work was interrupted when the project lost its lease on the church building. We rolled up the canvases and moved to an abandoned warehouse on West Forty-ninth Street, where we stretched the canvases on the wall and worked on a scaffold. Before we were quite finished, the warehouse was lost to us, and the murals were rolled up and stored at King Street while a new work location was sought.