Spotlight on the Golden Age of Mural Painting

Earlier this week, Mark Mitchell, Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale University Art Gallery, visited Gari Melchers Home and Studio in preparation for an exhibition he is organizing under the working title The Expressive Figure in the American Renaissance, 1876-1917. The Yale project explores the prominence of the human figure in American mural painting “as a vehicle for a newly emergent civic identity.” Gari Melchers (American, 1860-1932) was a major player in this golden era of mural painting, executing decorative cycles for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the Library of Congress, state houses in Rhode Island and Missouri, and in his own hometown, for the Detroit Public Library.

Peace - CopyGari Melchers, Peace, Library of Congress, 1895

Mitchell examined firsthand Melchers’ mural studies and related figural works housed in both the GMHS collection, as well as the holdings at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


Mitchell elaborated, “In a rush of post-Civil War construction of capitol buildings, libraries, train stations, customs houses, art museums, and other ‘palaces for the people,’  painters and sculptors—including John Singer Sargent, Edwin Austin Abbey, John              La Farge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Kenyon Cox, Gari Melchers, Violet Oakley, Edwin Blashfield, and Henry Siddons Mowbray—eagerly tested their talents in the creation of artistic programs on a grand scale. In their sculptures and mural cycles for these lavish civic spaces, artists focused on the human form, using it to project the heady ideals of the power of democracy over autocracy, of innovation over stagnation, and of a stable and vibrant future over a stormy and divided past.”

Concentrating on drawn, painted, and sculpted studies for the era’s major public commissions, The Expressive Figure demonstrates that “the artist’s most direct expression rests not in the final, sited work, largely executed by teams of assistants, but rather in the artist’s own vigorous, immediate, and wholly engaging preparatory efforts.”

Yale’s formidable collection of preparatory studies will be supplemented by major loans from public and private collections. Plans for the opening date of The Expressive Figure and additional exhibition venues are incomplete.


  1. Einar Einarsson Kvaran says

    I am most interested to see where this goes. As one of the authors of the Field Guide to Architectural Sculpture in the United States i am perhaps more interested in the final product than in the artist’s “preparatory efforts” but those too should prove to be fascinating. As they sing in “Grease” ,’Tell me more, tell me more.”

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