On the heels of his success with the Detroit Public Library murals, Gari Melchers was approached in early 1922 by John Pickard, Missouri State Capitol Decoration Commission President and University of Missouri art professor, to paint four large arch-shaped murals for the Governor’s Reception Room in the recently constructed State Capitol Building in Jefferson City. The Capitol is nationally known for its impressive collection of public art.
The mural subjects chosen by the Commission were Missourians who made significant contributions in the fields of education and literature: Susan Blow, founder of the first public kindergarten, Eugene Field, best known for his children’s poetry, James S. Rollins, known as the “Father of the University of Missouri,” and Mark Twain, prominent humorist writer.
In response to Melchers’ accepting the $20,000 commission, Pickard wrote to him
Because of Melchers’ age and the enormous size of the murals—each panel measured 5 feet wide and 12 feet high—he enlisted the help of his wife Corinne’s cousin, Robert McGill Mackall (1889-1982), an artist who had also assisted him with the Detroit Public Library murals.
The Commission’s contract with Melchers stipulated that he visit Missouri and “investigate thoroughly the splendid room which you are to decorate and all the circumstances attending biographical and historical facts in connection with the subjects which you are to handle.” Pickard assisted Melchers by making arrangements with various experts and sent him a pictures of an “old time Mississippi craft” and Miss Blow’s kindergarten classroom.
Pickard added, “The St. Louis people will also, of course, take great pleasure in assisting you in obtaining the necessary information reference to river steamers and steam boat life, and all that sort of thing. In fact, we are a pretty hospitable set of people out here in Missouri, and we hope that when you come you will plan to spend a little time with us so that you may get thoroughly into the spirit of the thing with which you have to do.”
While subsequently spending ten days researching in Missouri, the artist and his assistant took photographs, met with various experts, made numerous sketches, and even took a ride on the riverboat Erastus Wells as part of their fact-finding trip.
Being under contract to paint such high-profile decorations did not come without its difficulties. The Commission members had exacting opinions and weren’t shy about sharing them with Melchers.
After reviewing an initial sketch for the Mark Twain mural, Pickard had this to say.
“In the Mark Twain panel, Twain is made too dapper and slight, he is not dignified enough. I do not know what you intended to put in his right hand, but I have not doubt he had a pipe or cigar in it. In my opinion, for that position near the Governor’s chair, it would be better not to put either of these in his hand. Put field glasses or something like that in and make him look more dignified.” In another letter Pickard points out that Twain’s “bushy head is so well known that it would be a mistake not to give him this characteristic feature” and that “the deep blue in the pilot’s clothes seems to be a little too positive.”
Melchers was happy to accommodate the Commission’s wishes, but it certainly could be a tricky business as this letter to his wife attests to.
“I seem to have done a little better, but there are still some things which could be improved. It is of course hard for me to know just what to do- and I will not answer for the moment- particularly as Mr. Pickard says he will write more soon-It is an unpleasant situation to say the least and if I weather this task one thing is certain “never again!”
McGill, as he was called by Gari and Corinne, studied at the Art Student’s League in New York and went on to have a prolific career producing 54 murals, designing more than 30 stained glass windows, and also teaching in various art departments. The Baltimore native prepared numerous sketches, traveled to Missouri with the elder artist, helped prepare and square canvases, and most likely also painted portions of the finished work. Our records show Melchers paid McGill $2,500 for his contributions.
Back at Belmont, Corinne, who was also an artist, also assisted in the mural work. Her diary entries record her “fetching” and tending to the local children who posed for the Eugene Field and Susan Blow panels, sewing costumes for the models, posing as Ms. Blow, and squaring canvases with McGill.
Regarding the mural’s stylistic approach, according to Richard S. Reid in his exhibition catalog Murals by Gari Melchers, the artist adapted a more Impressionistic style featuring a brighter and more intense color palette compared to his earlier murals. He also included more details in the compositions since the decorations were to be placed at eye level.
Completed and installed by the 1923 deadline, the four larger-than-life murals have since become synonymous with the Governor of Missouri. The original Governor’s Reception Room became the Governor’s office in 1965 and the murals, restored by ICA Art Conservation in 2018 as part of a larger Capitol-wide conservation project, look as stunning as when they were first installed.
A quick look through Missouri Governor Parson’s Flickr photo albums validates John Pickard’s assertion that the murals would be “seen, admired and appreciated” by all who gather for every meeting, presentation, or accommodation.