Mitchell Jamieson mural, Department of Interior - Washington DC
The Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior building contains one of the largest collections of New Deal art in Washington DC by some of the finest American artists of the time.
Mitchell Jamieson’s painting, “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” depicts the April 9, 1939 Marian Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial. That concert came about after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to sing before an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. That incident infuriated many people, including Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who arranged for a public concert by Anderson, a world renowned African-American contralto. The Jamieson mural portrays the open-air concert, which was attended by an integrated audience of over 75,000 people and broadcast widely on radio.
The Jamieson mural was not commissioned as part of the original vision for the new Department of Interior headquarters building. Whereas most of the building’s other artworks were contracted in 1937-1939 by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, the Jamieson mural was commissioned on its own in 1940 and the artist’s $1,700 contract was funded via private contributions to the Marian Anderson Fund Committee; only the installation costs were covered from federal monies. Nevertheless, given the role of Secretary Ickes and Mrs. Roosevelt, the mural can be considered to have been sponsored by the New Deal.
The mural was installed in 1942 and a dedication ceremony with Marian Anderson was held January 6, 1943. It can be found by the south entrance in the main corridor of the basement.
Jamieson’s mural evolved from conceptual drawings to installed piece – particularly in regard to faces in the crowd – to include Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), Charles H. Houston (1895-1950), and some of Jamieson’s own family members. Viewers have also noted that two figures in the middle distance at right bear a resemblance to President Roosevelt and the First Lady (Butler 2005).
On February 1, 2018, the Jamieson mural received the first-ever designation as a site under the African American Civil Rights Network Act of 2017.
The Department of Interior Museum offers regular mural tours; check their website for information and registration.
For more information on the Interior building, its art and the artists, see Look and Perrault 1986 (below – available online). Artworks begin on p. 110.
Look, David and Carole Perrault. The Interior Building: Its Architecture and Its Art. Washington DC: US Department of Interior, National Park Service, 1986. pp. 110-172. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015029850214&view=1up&seq=1
Personal communication, Tracy L. Baetz, Chief Curator, Department of the Interior Museum, November 25, 2019
Sara A. Butler, 2005, "The Art of Negotiation, Federal Arts, Civil Rights, and the Legacy of the Marian Anderson Concert", (Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 40, No. 4).
National Park Service (1986), The Interior Building: Its Architecture and Its Art
Project originally submitted by Shaina Potts on February 26, 2015.
Additional contributions by Tracy Baetz.
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