- Historic Sites
When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Suddenly I was offered a new work location—an abandoned pier in the Hudson River. Mine was only one of many projects working in this vast space, and I finished my library panels quickly. One day we were visited by the redoubtable Colonel Somervell, who had Mrs. Roosevelt in tow. When he came to me and had introduced me to Mrs. Roosevelt, Colonel Somervell stepped out of the line of march to speak to me. “How is your project going?” he asked. I told him it was proceeding very well. “Do you need anything you aren’t provided with?” he asked. I said I had everything I could require. He fell in with Mrs. F.D.R. and proceeded on his inspection of other work projects on the pier.
It was early in 1940 when my four mural panels were finished and we took them to the library. This time I had my way, and the installation was made with white lead as an adhesive. The technicians would meet with me and my assistants about six in the evening, after the library was closed to the public, and we would work into the early hours of the morning.
When the lower walls of the library’s Great Hall were finished, the project staged an unveiling. Photos of the murals were released to the press. Emily Genauer in the Tribune pronounced them “sound as a nut,” and Edward Alden Jewel, after quibbling about the library’s neoclassical architecture, announced, “The Mausoleum is complete.” The official unveiling was scheduled to be a ceremony in the auditorium, adjoining the Great Hall ‘to the east. Mayor La Guardia promised to be there. Two or three hundred people gathered and waited. It was at least an hour beyond the announced time before the mayor appeared, but the crowd, though restive, kept to their seats. People who remember Fiorello La Guardia will recall that he went everywhere, and was always late. He came in escorted by Colonel Somervell.
Holger Cahill opened the ceremonies. Then I was called on to say something. I told the audience this was not the first time I had seen Mayor La Guardia confronted by a work of art—or, I added, a work of art confronted by Mayor La Guardia. At this point the mayor looked up at me quizzically, as if to say, “What the hell are you up to?” I went on to recall a recent opening of an Art Project Easel Painting Show, when Burgoyne Diller had brought the mayor and Arshile Gorky face to face before a Gorky painting and had asked Gorky to elucidate his Kandinsky-ish painting to the mayor—and La Guardia had turned on his heel and walked away, saying, “I’m as conservative in my art as I am progressive in my politics!” I hesitated a moment while the audience laughed. I looked at La Guardia, who seemed relieved. I added, “I thought it was good at the time, but now I’m not so sure! ” I sat down and the mayor came to the rostrum. He looked down at me with a fierce scowl. Then he beamed. He said, “If politicians could paint as well as Mr. Laning can talk, it would be a better world!” He went on to apologize for being late; he explained that he was a very busy man but that this was a more important occasion than he had realized. He led us into the hall and witnessed the unveiling of the murals, and he congratulated me.
Shortly before the murals were installed, Mr. Stokes said to me, “If we could get you up there, could you touch up the ceiling?” The ceiling in this monumental hall on the third floor of the library is a vault. It consists of elaborately carved mouldings framing open spaces. At the center is a space about fifteen feet wide and forty feet long that had been painted to represent an open sky- pink clouds against a blue ground. In 1940 this ceiling painting was flaking badly and looked very unsightly. Mr. Stokes explained to me that the library’s roof had become leaky but that this problem had finally been solved. “We succeeded in raising a million dollars for a new monel metal roof over the entire building,” he said, “and there will be no further damage.” I said to him, “If you can get me up there at all, why don’t we paint something more interesting than pretty pink clouds in a blue sky? Why don’t we do something more in keeping with the mural paintings we are installing below?” He told me to design something, and I made a sketch of Prometheus descending from heaven carrying the stolen fire of learning and culture to mankind below. At either end of the space I designed figures representing man’s reactions to Prometheus’ offering: some aspiring toward the light, others putting down those who aspired, some lost in indifferent sleep.
My sketch was approved by the library board, and in our abandoned Hudson River pier I prepared a full-sized cartoon. The project’s carpenters made me a huge frame, which we laced with crosswires. I placed my cartoon (which I had drawn on paper tacked to a side wall of the pier) on this frame, face down, and with ropes and pulleys we raised the cartoon overhead to a height comparable to the height of the library ceiling, about fifty feet from the floor. I studied my figures in this overhead situation and worked with them until I thought their foreshortening was convincing. I knew that when I painted the canvas against a vertical wall, this sense of overhead foreshortening would be very difficult to achieve, and once I had my cartoon right I held to it strictly. This necessity applied to the figures at the ends of the painting, figures that were represented as standing or sitting on rocky peaks seen from below. The figure of Prometheus at the center was another matter. Since he was suspended in air, I knew I could give him any attitude I chose. I felt that the figure in my cartoon was stiff, and I decided to improvise.