Behind the Scenes: Detroit Public Library Mural Commission

Let me introduce myself.  My name is Madison Martin and I’m a senior majoring in Art History at the University of Mary Washington.  I am so pleased to be the new Curatorial Intern at Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont.  My first assignment was an exciting glimpse into the profession of curator.  Joanna Catron, the curator at Belmont shared with me a request from the head of the interpretive staff at the Detroit Public Library who wanted to expand upon their tour of the building’s history and the mural paintings, in particular, Gari Melchers’ mural series.

What I knew before starting my research was that Melchers was from Detroit, and his father was also an important artist, a sculptor, in the city who produced topics relating to the city’s history. I began my journey in the archives, specifically to review Melchers’ letters, income taxes, and his wife, Corinne’s diary. The letters led me to the important American architect Cass Gilbert who designed the new library in the Italian Renaissance Style. As the Library neared completion he approached Melchers as early as 1919 and asked Melchers to contribute to the plan for the interior decorations of the library. Melchers agreed to the project and later it was determined that his murals would hang in the delivery room of the newly constructed Italian Renaissance style building in Detroit.

Detroit Public Library murals by Gari Melchers

Gari Melchers’ murals in the Detroit Public Library

In the early 1920s Melchers began work on the commission.  We are unsure with whom the idea originated, but the architect and the artist agreed upon the topic for the proposed murals. Melchers would portray historical and allegorical subjects relating to the settling of Detroit: The Landing of Cadillac’s Wife, The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and The Spirit of the Northwest.

The Landing of Cadillac's Wife by Gari Melchers

The Landing of Cadillac’s Wife represents the city of Detroit in its earliest days as a two-year old fort in the wilderness. There is stockade visible in the background and in the foreground a pier where Detroit’s founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac embraces his wife. The wife of his First Commander Alphonse Tonty is helped out of the boat. The arrival of French women represent the beginning of Detroit’s metamorphosis from a military outpost to a city and the trapper on the right symbolizes the primary reason for French involvement in the region—lucrative fur trade.

Spirit of the Northwest by Gari Melchers

The Spirit of the Northwest is an allegorical work depicting Michigan’s early settlement. Saint Claire is shown against a map of the lake that LaSalle named in her honor during his first exploration of the Detroit River.  She is portrayed with the two attributes that define her, the lily and the Bible.  Flanking her are a pathfinder and trapper that represent the spirit of adventure and exploration, which opened the area to the white man.

The Conspiracy of Pontiac by Gari Melchers

The third mural is Melchers’ depiction of The Conspiracy of Pontiac. 80 years after Cadillac’s arrival the British had assumed control of the region. Pontiac, the leader of several tribes devised a plan to drive them out of the territory. He pretended to offer them peace while he and other chiefs entered the British fort with concealed weapons. The Native Americans intended to take the British fort by surprise and massacre the inhabitants. The British learned of the attack and Pontiac became unnerved and backed out. Melchers illustrated the moment where Pontiac offers a wampum belt to the British Commander surrounded by armed guards.

At the time of the commission Melchers was living in Falmouth, Virginia with his wife Corinne; his studio and an additional spaces were used to work on the commission.  In fact, according to documentation, he used local townspeople from the Fredericksburg, Virginia area as models for this commission and his wife Corinne was active making costumes for models as well as posing for The Landing of Cadillac’s Wife. Because of Melchers age and his physical condition resulting from phlebitis, he called upon his wife’s cousin Robert McGill Mackall, a Baltimore artist to assist him with this monumental work.  Mackall was responsible for research sketches, helping to prepare canvases, and most likely he also painted portions of the finished work.  These mural paintings reflect the stylistic changes Melchers’ painting had undergone since the 1890’s. Though his brushwork and modeling remains flat, something conducive to the vast area of painted surface mural paintings, he used brighter and more intense colors, a technique he had learned from the Impressionist painters.

Intrigued by what I had discovered in the archives, letters, and Corinne’s diary, I made my way down to collections.  There, what I learned in the archives began to make sense when looking at the research and preparatory sketches that Gari produced before the final mural.  These sketches offer an interesting perspective in what Melchers was planning for the finished product as well as detailing the process of an artist at work.

Early SketchThe earliest sketches and studies seem to have little detail and the later ones are more detail oriented and often include color.  It is important to note that through the planning process of these three murals Melchers and Mackall carefully considered and mapped out the position of every nuance.

Early Sketch

One of the most interesting sketches was inspired by 13th century Italian artist Simone Martini’s depiction of Saint Claire from the Lower Church of Assisi, Italy; readapted by Melchers in his portrayal of Saint Claire in The Spirit of the Northwest.  Melchers and Mackall drew out most of the figures in each painting on a grid in order to easily bring each figure to scale on the final paining, as well as to have correct proportions, and perspective in relation to the other figures.

Once the final canvases were completed in October of 1921 in Virginia they were delivered to the Detroit Public Library and installed under the supervision of Melchers. From the handwritten paper listing his earnings from the year 1921, it appears the he was paid $14,000 for this commission, today that amounts to $180,000.  The murals were well received and remain beloved by Detroit’s proud citizen’s because the murals are a magnificent depiction of their city’s history.

This project was an interesting journey and a glimpse into the process of a commissioned mural.  I am so pleased to play a small role in clarifying the history behind these murals.

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