Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Emily S. Warner


Murals in the Greater Philadelphia region, like those in the United States at large, belong to an extraordinarily diverse set of histories and genealogies, from indigenous rock carving to decorations for private houses to paintings in public buildings and community initiatives. Philadelphia-area murals have spanned this diverse heritage, including three particularly important mural movements: Beaux-Arts muralism, which flourished from around 1876 to the mid-1920s; modern murals of the New Deal era (c. 1930-43); and the community mural movement that began in the 1970s.

[caption id="attachment_23519" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of one segment of the Pennsylvania capitol building rotunda showing murals under archways Several prominent muralists completed murals for the Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg. This trio was painted by Edwin Austin Abbey. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The word “mural,” from the Latin mur for “wall,” seems to have first emerged in reference to painting in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet the practice of decorating walls and other surrounding structures well predates the term. Petroglyphs discovered near the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County provide striking visual testimony to Algonquin-speaking cultures in the region, with examples dating as far back as 1000 AD. In colonial and early national Philadelphia, painted wall panels—used in doors, over mantelpieces, and as fireboards to cover the hearth—decorated residential interiors, often depicting landscapes or utilizing floral motifs, as in a c. 1761 overmantel from Lancaster County. In the nineteenth century, wall painting became increasingly associated with public buildings. According to Francis V. O’Connor, the earliest public mural in Philadelphia was likely a now-lost fresco cycle in the dome of William Strickland’s Philadelphia Exchange, painted c. 1834-35, that depicted allegories of Commerce, Wealth, and Liberty. Other examples of nineteenth-century wall painting were more closely allied with the fields of architecture and design. George Herzog (1851-1920), for example, completed complex decorative schemes for Philadelphia buildings, combining painting and architectural ornament. His interiors for Philadelphia City Hall and the Philadelphia Masonic Temple feature ornament and symbols from Egyptian, Renaissance, and other historical styles.

Beaux-Arts Muralism, 1876-1925

[caption id="attachment_23525" align="alignright" width="298"]a color study of a mural by Violet Oakley for the Pennsylvania State Capitol building, showing the allegorical face of Truth behind blue stylized letters that spell Law Violet Oakley completed numerous murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol building. This study is for one of the sixteen murals in the Supreme Court Room. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Around the nation’s centennial in 1876, a new and more self-conscious mural movement arose in the United States, one whose style and iconography dominated mural painting for the next five decades. Called Beaux-Arts or American Renaissance muralism, this movement sought to create a public, monumental art that would reflect the nation’s values. Favoring allegory, classical references, and grand historical themes, Beaux-Arts muralists decorated countless statehouses, courthouses, and churches across the country. Painter Violet Oakley (1874-1961) left her particular Beaux-Arts vision—socially oriented, pacifist, and proto-feminist—in several murals in greater Philadelphia. Oakley was the first woman to receive a mural commission for a public building in the United States when she began her cycle at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg in 1902; she would return to the Capitol a decade later to complete several other murals on jurisprudence and the history of nations. Oakley also created decorative programs for private homes and churches, including for the Charlton Yarnall mansion in Philadelphia (1910-11; lunettes acquired by the Woodmere Art Museum) and the late project Great Women of the Bible for the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown (1945-49), painted when Oakley was in her 70s. Other notable murals from the Beaux-Arts era include a cycle by Edwin Blashfield (1848-1936) for the Church of the Saviour in Philadelphia (1906), a mural on the history of coinage by William Brantley Van Ingen (1858-1955) and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) for the Philadelphia Mint (1901), and the Trenton City Hall’s Steel and Ceramics Industries (1911) by Everett Shinn (1876-1953), which, in its realist style and scenes of labor, points ahead to themes central to the New Deal murals of the 1930s.

[caption id="attachment_23523" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the glass mosaic Dream Garden with central fountain feature, flanked by candelabras Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tiffany's glass mosaic Dream Garden (1914-16) stands in the lobby of The Curtis building. It was successfully saved from removal in the 1990s. (Photograph by G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Although Beaux-Arts muralism is most closely associated with civic allegories for public institutions, painters from the period also frequently pursued subjects that were more frankly personal and pleasurable in nature. The cycle by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) for his house in Wilmington, Delaware (1903-07; acquired by the Delaware Museum of Art); the cloisonné stained-glass panels by John La Farge (1835-1910) for the Edward W. Bok house in Merion, Pennsylvania (1907; acquired by the Fleisher Art Memorial, Philadelphia); and the collaboration between Frederick Maxfield Parrish (1870-1960) and Louis Comfort Tiffany for the glass mosaic Dream Garden (1914-15; The Curtis lobby, Philadelphia) present variations of a more romantic, pastoral sensibility.

Modern Muralism and the New Deal

Between 1934 and 1943, hundreds of murals were installed across greater Philadelphia under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA-FAP), the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, and other government programs. Unlike Beaux-Arts muralism, these murals favored realism and daily life over classicism and allegory, and they tended to focus on common people and workers rather than heroes and founders. Many were inspired by the modern mural movement begun in Mexico in the 1920s. Murals such as Progress and Industry (1935) and Rural Delivery (1937) by Charles W. Ward (1900-62) for the Trenton post office; The Family—Industry and Agriculture (1939) by Harry Sternberg (1904-2001) for the post office in Ambler, Pennsylvania; and Streets of Philadelphia by Walter Gardner (1902-96) at the Spring Garden post office (1937) exemplify the period’s interest in populist types, American roots, and a “usable past.” Muralists working in this modern, New Deal-era style were also supported by private patrons. Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), for example, continued his exploration of African American and African diaspora history—first established in public murals in New York, Tennessee, and Texas—in Haitian Mural (1942), painted for the private home of W.W. Goens in Wilmington, Delaware. Spreading out above the home’s fireplace, the mural uses Douglas’s characteristic silhouettes to show Haitians striding through a landscape of mountains and forest.

Other mural currents, 1930s-1960s

Other forms of wall painting continued during the 1930s and in the ensuing decades. Art Deco designers utilized wall painting for a host of 1930s structures in Philadelphia, including the Board of Education Administration Building (1929-31), the N.W. Ayer Building (1928), and the WCAU Building (1928). European modernists were also experimenting with the mural in these years, and some examples can be found in greater Philadelphia. The mural by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) for the Barnes Foundation (1932-3), commissioned by Albert C. Barnes himself, fills the lunettes of the foundation’s building, continuing a long tradition of French abstraction and decorative wall painting. Family of Man (1961), a pair of cast concrete walls in low relief by muralist and sculptor Costantino Nivola (1911-88), sits outside the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, showing abstracted shapes suggestive of the human body. American artist Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2016) also explored the intersection of two and three dimensions in his Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956-7), a sixty-five-foot-long abstract surface of aluminum rods and tilted monochrome panels. Originally installed in the Philadelphia Transportation Building, the mural was removed in 1995 and eventually ended up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it returned to Philadelphia for a brief showing in 2013 at the Barnes Foundation.

The Community Mural Movement in Philadelphia

[caption id="attachment_23522" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of guests exploring the large scale mosaic Philadelphia Magic Gardens by Isaiah Zagar Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, a large mosaic and found object art installation by Isaiah Zagar, is a popular tourist destination. Zagar began the project in the 1990s. (Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Beginning in the 1970s, artists and activists in Philadelphia turned to a new form of mural painting, one sited in urban spaces, grounded in community participation, and taking inspiration from contemporary street art. Don Kaiser (b. 1945) and Clarence Wood (b. 1943), working through the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Department of Urban Outreach, spearheaded the creation of over 150 murals throughout the city from 1970 through the early 1980s, often in close collaboration with local citizens. In 1986, artist Lily Yeh (b. 1941) began Ile-Ife Park: The Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia with community residents. A park filled with murals, mosaic sculptures, and plantings, it has served as a site of both public art and community engagement. With its aesthetic of mosaics and found objects, Ile-Ife resonates with other public art in the city, like that of Isaiah Zagar (b. 1939). Zagar’s public mosaics, dating back to the 1960s, can be found on walls throughout the city, and his immersive installation Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, begun in the 1990s, is now a museum.

[caption id="attachment_25011" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo with Phillies mural in background and Mural Arts Program founder Jane Golden speaking foreground. Jane Golden, founder of the Mural Arts Program, helps dedicate a Phillies mural in 2015. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Around the 1990s, Philadelphia’s community mural movements began to attain national and international recognition. Organizations like the Brandywine Workshop (founded 1972), Taller Puertorriqueño (founded 1974), and the Mural Arts Program (founded in 1984 as the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network) played a major role in the ongoing commissioning and painting of these murals, including iconic examples like We the Youth (1987) by Keith Haring (1958-90) and Jackie Robinson (1997) by David McShane (b. 1965). The growth of institutions dedicated to mural painting is part of a larger trend in American cities, where many mural movements, once informal and relatively unknown, have achieved a new level of status and professionalism. While this has allowed for greater visibility and funding for murals, it has also opened community muralism up to criticism. Some have noted the dilution of earlier, more radical goals, while others have criticized the movement’s role in social control (through, for example, anti-graffiti measures), urban renewal, and gentrification.

[caption id="attachment_23518" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Aqui y Alla mural of two young Mexican immigrants A joint effort between artists in Philadelphia and Chihuahua, Mexico, Aqui y Alla explores the theme of immigration in the Mexican-American community. (Photograph by Mary Rizzo for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Mural Arts Program remains one of the most well-known and most prolific mural organizations in the country. Founded by artist Jane Golden (b. 1953), the program has completed over thirty-eight hundred  works since its founding and made the styles of muralists like Michael Webb (b. 1947) and Meg Saligman (b. 1965) common sights across Philadelphia’s outdoor walls. Their murals often reflect on the city’s past and present, as in Webb’s Tribute to Julian Abele (2011), which celebrates the first African American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Architecture, or Saligman’s Common Threads (1998), a vast, eight-story painting juxtaposing Philadelphia high school students and ancient figurines. Local politics and folk traditions are rendered in works like Frank Rizzo (1995) by Diane Keller (b. 1948) and Welcome to Mummer Land (1999) by Robert Bullock (b. 1953). Committed to the idea that “art ignites change,” Mural Arts has branched out into initiatives geared at schoolchildren, prison inmates, and victims of violence. Other projects have encouraged transnational collaboration, as in Aqui y Alla (2007), a mural by Philadelphia artist Michelle Angela Ortiz (b. 1978) and Mexican artist groups Colectivo REZIZTE and Colectivo Madroño, and investigated the nature of contemporary muralism, as in its muraLAB program.

These contemporary murals continued a long tradition of mural painting in and around Philadelphia. Like their predecessors, they constituted part of the built environment and its history. In addition to being fascinating works of art in their own right, the murals of greater Philadelphia have chronicled society’s changing notions of public space and the role of art in the urban landscape.

Emily S. Warner received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago (2006) and her M.A. in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania (2012), where she is a doctoral candidate. Her research interests include topics in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century art history and visual culture.

Birch’s Views of Philadelphia

[caption id="attachment_16264" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Executive Mansion on Ninth William Russell Birch and his son Thomas collaborated to create this colored print of the President's House at Ninth Street, which no president ever occupied. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America; as it appeared in the Year 1800 is a masterpiece of American copperplate engraving and the first book of views to be entirely produced and published in the United States. Comprising twenty-seven scenes or “views” of Philadelphia’s buildings and streetscapes, the book aimed to give, in the words of its creator William Russell Birch (1755-1834), “the most general idea of the town.” Enormously successful, the work was published both as a bound book and as separate loose-leaf prints, and appeared in three subsequent editions over the next thirty years. It is significant as a record of Philadelphia’s architectural past and as a rich example of urban visual culture in the early Republic.

[caption id="attachment_16262" align="alignright" width="300"]Market Street at Third Street The southeast corner of Third and Market Streets, featured in the first edition of Birch's Views. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first edition of Birch’s Views, as the work came to be known, was part of a larger boom in population, visitation (as tourism was termed at the time), and book and map publishing that the city witnessed during its ten-year period as the United States Capital, 1790-1800. Birch arrived in Philadelphia from his native England during this time, and his Views lingered on sites of commercial, political, and cultural import, from the High Street Market to Congress Hall to the Fifth Street Library. Throughout, Birch balanced careful renderings of edifices with a feel for city life: Philadelphia’s handsome Georgian facades and characteristic street corners are enlivened by pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, groups of soldiers and Native Americans, and, in the plate “High Street, From the Country Marketplace,” the 1799 funeral procession for George Washington. Together the prints provide a virtual walk through the city, the viewer pausing to take in picturesque sights and local color. Yet these details of daily life also speak to larger ideals of civic identity and national order, as in the bustling shipbuilding scene entitled “Preparation for War to defend Commerce.”

[caption id="attachment_16266" align="alignright" width="300"]First Chestnut Theatre The Chestnut Theatre was lost to fire, but preserved as an image by Birch's Views. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Like other engravings and printed books, the Views resulted from a collaborative endeavor. Birch’s son Thomas (1779-1851) painted sketches in watercolor, which were transferred to copper plates by engraver Samuel Seymour or by Birch himself. Birch made changes in nearly every edition, updating existing scenes to better reflect the city’s landscape, adding new views, or simply getting rid of scenes that no longer held appeal. The work thus not only documents many structures later demolished, but also indicates the shifting character of Philadelphia’s built environment and of public taste.

At the time of its first publication in 1800, the Views constituted the most extensive pictorial catalog of Philadelphia to date, an attempt to depict the city in its full range of activities and places and to record it for posterity. Birch advertised the volume as a “Memento for the 18th Century,” and the book’s eminent subscribers, such as Stephen Girard (1750-1831) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), showed that such memorializing carried political and cultural weight among the nation’s elite. City views, annals, and other antiquarian projects gained particular popularity in Philadelphia in the 1820s onward, part of a renewed interest in historical memory. Birch participated in this wave of interest, publishing the fourth and final edition of his Views in 1827-28. Artistic merit and the historical appeal of Birch’s views have ensured their continued popularity.

[caption id="attachment_5030" align="aligncenter" width="544"]William Birch's 1798 print of the frigate <i>Philadelphia<i> at the Humphrey's and Wharton Shipyard Birch captured the construction of frigate Philadelphia in November 1798 at Humphrey’s & Wharton Shipyard on Front Street on the Delaware River. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Emily S. Warner received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago (2006) and her M.A. in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania (2012), where she is a doctoral candidate. Her research interests include topics in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century art history and visual culture.

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