The “Life of Washington” Murals Explained

Click on the images below to enlarge.

 

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Arnautoff at work at GW High School, Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Victor Arnautoff was one of the most prolific artists of the New Deal. Born in Russia in 1896, he served as a Calvary officer in WWI, and later in one of the White armies during the Russian Civil War. He arrived in San Francisco in 1925 to study art. When his student visa expired, he spent two years in Mexico as an assistant to the muralist Diego Rivera. In 1931, Arnautoff and his family returned to San Francisco, where he began to produce buon fresco murals, a technique in which the artist paints on wet plaster. The paint penetrates and becomes part of the wall, making frescoes very difficult to move.

Working for the WPA in 1936, Arnautoff created thirteen fresco murals at George Washington High School. Entitled the “Life of Washington,” the murals cover 1,600 square feet of the walls and ceilings of the school’s entry and main hallway. Arnautoff did extensive research for the murals. He wrote in his memoirs that he wanted to show two things: the life of George Washington and what he called the “spirit of his times.”  He also said, “The artist must be a critic of his society.” Arnautoff, who would soon join the Communist Party, called himself a social realist. He thought his paintings should show realistic people rather than abstract imagery, and felt an obligation to be a social critic.

Mural series, “Life of Washington”
Photo: Richard Evans

The first mural chronologically in Washington’s life is divided by an image of a tree.

Photo: Robert Cherny

On one side of this mural Arnautoff portrays Washington’s early life, including as a surveyor. On the other side he shows the French and Indian War, Washington’s first military experience. 

French Indian War
Photo: Richard Evans

Instead of placing Washington in the middle of this scene, Arnautoff put American Indians in the center, surrounded on all sides by the British, the French, and the American colonials. 

Raising the Flag
Photo: Richard Evans

Here Arnautoff depicted the origins of the American Revolution—the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the burning of the tax stamps. Again, Arnautoff did not put Washington in the center. Washington is in the upper right, arriving to take command of the army. In the middle, Arnautoff painted several working-class men raising the new flag.

Men in Rags Valley Forge
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural depicts the first winter at Valley Forge. The usual depiction of this event is a portrait of Washington praying in the snow. Arnautoff did something quite different. He shows Washington and three members of the Continental Congress warmly dressed in winter clothing and the enlisted men dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in bandages. Washington is pointing out the poor condition of his troops as a way of persuading Congress to give him more financial support. To me, this is Arnautoff’s social commentary on class privilege at the time of the American Revolution.

Mercenary Surrender
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff’s sketches for the mural suggest that this is a Hessian mercenary surrendering at Yorktown. Washington is absent from this mural. It is enlisted troops doing their duty.

Bidding Farewell Officer
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural shows Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War bidding farewell to his officers, including Lafayette and Von Steuben, perhaps Arnautoff’s way of emphasizing that the American revolutionaries needed assistance from abroad to win their war of independence.

Washington with Hamilton and Jefferson
Photo: Robert Cherny

Opposite that mural, Arnautoff depicted Washington as president, mediating between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the new Constitution.

Alcove Banner
Photo: Robert Cherny

At the entrance to that alcove, Arnautoff put this banner with a quotation from Washington about the importance of educational institutions.

Washington with Mother
Photo: Robert Cherny

In the final alcove, Arnautoff presented two more scenes related to Washington’s presidency. This one shows him bidding farewell to his dying mother. By some accounts, Washington was reluctant to leave her, but she encouraged him to go because of the importance of the work facing him as the first president.

Washington with Children
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff learned through his research that Washington had tried to create a national university. 

Mount Vernon
Photo: Richard Evans

Now controversial, this mural shows Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation. Once again, Washington is on the margins. Arnautoff put enslaved African Americans at in the center of this mural. This was his comment on the fact— all too often ignored in the 1930s—that the same men who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring “all men are created equal,” owned other people as property. For Arnautoff this was one of the great contradictions of Washington’s time, and he makes clear in this mural that Washington was dependent on enslaved labor for his wealth. Arnautoff was clearly using his art to provide social criticism.

Pioneer Mural
Photo: Richard Evans

Arnautoff said that, in his research for the mural, he looked for ways to connect Washington to the West. This would have been difficult because at the time the nation ended at the Mississippi River. But he found a reference to Washington making a statement about the significance of the West.

Arnautoff divided this now-controversial mural into three separate stories.   Washington is on the left side, pointing west. In the center, Arnautoff’s social criticism is seen in what the artist called “the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Arnautoff’s murals are all painted in color, but these westward marching pioneers are shown in a ghastly grey scale—a technique he learned from Diego Rivera. Arnautoff’s pioneers are marching past a dead Indian warrior, his commentary on the settlement of the West.

The third story in this mural is on the right, where a white man and an American Indian chief are sitting down together with a peace pipe. Over their heads, however, is a broken branch, apparently Arnautoff’s way of depicting broken promises and treaties.

For Arnautoff, the “spirit of the times” of early American history involved its greatest injustices: slavery and the killing and dispossession of America’s First People.  

Liberty Ceiling Mural
Photo: Robert Cherny

On the ceiling of the first alcove, Arnautoff placed the moon, a symbol of war, and above the second, a sun and rainbow, symbols for peace. On the ceiling of the third alcove is Liberty putting thirteen new stars onto a blue field. 

German Media Reports on the George Washington High School Controversy

Several German media outlets have published stories about the struggle to conserve the Victor Arnautoff mural at the George Washington High School in San Francisco.

https://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/san-francisco-streitet-ueber-fresken-mit-george-washington-sklaven-und-ureinwohnern-a-1282485.html

https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/heute/bilder-spalten-san-francisco-streit-um-us-gemaelde-mit-sklaven-100.html

https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/ausland/usa/id_86288404/san-francisco-streitet-ueber-historische-wandgemaelde-in-schule.html

Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook, by David W. Gates, Jr.

As a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail some years back, David W. Gates Jr. would stop to pick up the supplies he had mailed to himself at the tiny post offices along the route that were his lifeline during his 6-month, 2,176-mile trek through 14 states. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since.

After penning hundreds of stories for his blog, Gates has published a book about post office murals in Wisconsin commissioned during the New Deal.

Many of the nation’s post offices were constructed between 1934 and 1943 to provide jobs for unemployed workers. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture—later renamed the Section of Fine Arts—held competitions for artists to decorate these and other federal buildings. Many post offices in small towns got murals from the Treasury Relief Art Project. These post office murals often depicted the history, character, and industry of the towns where they were installed.

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, the Postal Service is making every effort to preserve this “uniquely American art…and safeguard it for future generations.” But, in fact, the Postal Service is selling off hundreds of historic post offices, many with New Deal artworks. David has been trying to photograph them before they disappear from public view.

The Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook offers the traveler the locations of post offices where the public still has access to the murals (all of which were created with public funds), as well as information about those that have been removed or closed to public view.

The guidebook contains 70 color photographs, the location, and status of these endangered assets. Because many post office murals were not signed, often USPS clerks themselves don’t know the names of the artists or titles of the murals where they work. Gates’ book—soon to be followed by another that explores the subject more deeply—will open their and others’ eyes to an overlooked public treasure.

New Deal Murals Spur Controversy

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Victor Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Hot on the heels of widespread demands to remove Confederate monuments come calls to remove or destroy New Deal works of art believed by some to be racist.

WPA murals in the lobby of San Francisco’s George Washington High School have recently come under fire. Painted by renowned Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff in 1935, one of the mural panels shows Washington with his slaves at Mount Vernon; another depicts Washington pointing pioneers westward over the body of a dead Indian. African Americans and Native Americans have complained to the school district, which has appointed a special committee to decide what to do about the offending art works. Destruction is one serious option.

“Life of Washington”

“Life of Washington”
The murals are painted on 12 panels, measuring 1600 square feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Some New Deal art can be interpreted as demeaning or even racist, but Victor Arnautoff’s daring murals, I believe, fall into a more problematic category. They depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny. It is a position so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public space.

Even Arnautoff’s friend and fellow left-winger, Russian artist Anton Refregier, said that he knew what had happened to the California Indians but could only go so far in his great New Deal mural cycle of California history, which he completed in 1947 for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office. Nonetheless, during the McCarthy era conservative Congressmen nearly destroyed Refregier’s murals for showing uncomfortable aspects of American history and for their implicit criticism.

Entrance to George Washington High School

Entrance to George Washington High School
The school was completed by the WPA in 1936
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

That is precisely what Arnautoff was doing in his murals at George Washington High, but his criticism went where Refregier feared to tread. Unlike all the other colorful figures in Arnautoff’s murals, he painted the westward-moving pioneers in ash-grey and armed them with rifles and a pickaxe with which to take the mineral wealth of the fallen Indian who, unlike them, he painted in full color. Arnautoff’s pioneers represent not heroes but a death march. They march to the far right of the painting toward the signing of a treaty that their armed progress will violate, just as so many treaties with Native Americans were broken. Arnautoff is saying that the U.S. was born and grew upon bad faith and over the body of a people that had lived for ages on their land until invaders violently took it from them.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier
This panel depicts the Sir Francis Drake arriving in California. Notice the blood in the tip of Drakes’ sword

Refregier’s Rincon Annex murals were so controversial at the time he painted them that then-Representative Richard Nixon wrote to a constituent in 1949 that “I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.” On May 1, 1953, with Nixon as vice president, that committee met in Washington, D.C. to put on trial not only Refregier’s art but then-popular versions of history as well.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"
This controversial mural depicts the longshoremen’s strike in 1934, when two strikers were killed.  Source

It is because San Franciscans of both parties rose up in defense of the murals, that Refregier’s works narrowly escaped destruction. Today they are regarded as masterpieces of New Deal art. San Francisco schools use them to teach about history and racial diversity, as well as conflict—themes that were hardly popular when Refregier painted them.

Victor Arnautoff, Self-portrait

Victor Arnautoff
Self-portraitWikimedia

Arnautoff’s murals, like Refregier’s, offer such an opportunity to teach the power of art to encourage critical thinking and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Shortly after completing his paintings, Refregier wrote of his fear that “some night, perhaps, men will come with buckets of white paint and it will take very little time to destroy that which took me so long to make. And in the morning it will be just like it was three years ago. White walls without colors, without ideas, ideas that make people so mad and so afraid.”