Tuesday, September 22, 2015

WPA Mural: Jared French "Lunchtime with the Early Miners," 1938

U.S. Post Office Building, Plymouth: Lunchtime with Early Miners (1938) by Jared French, who painted the only nude in New Deal post office murals, despite warnings by government officials.

          Nudity was to be avoided, and Section Director Edward Bruce was emphatic about this point. “Anybody who wanted to paint a nude ought to have his head examined!” he declared. 

          Bruce’s officials were quick to advise artists to remove or tone down anything that might be deemed risqué. Once again, however, depictions of Native Americans proved to be an exception to the rule. Artists who specialized in figurative art could portray muscular, nearly naked Native Americans in poses deemed inappropriate for whites. 
          Jared French (1905–1987), an artist who devised an unusual pictorial language to explore human unconsciousness and its relation to sexuality, could not resist testing the boundaries. In 1937, he was working on two post office murals, one for Plymouth, Pennsylvania, and the second for Richmond, Virginia. 

          For the Richmond commission, he proposed depicting a group of Confederate soldiers in various states of undress preparing to cross a stream to flee advancing Union forces. The Section advised French that the figures must be clothed. “You have painted enough nudes in your life so that the painting of several more or less should not matter in your artistic career,” wrote a Section administrator. French capitulated on the Richmond mural—he wanted to be paid after all—but as a final jab at Rowan and the Section, he did manage to paint one more nude. 

          Before finishing the Plymouth mural, Mealtime with the Early Coal Miners, French inserted into the background a male figure piloting a barge, inexplicably unclothed. The nude pilot, like the union buttons of the railcar workers, went undetected by Treasury Department officials. The offending image appeared too small to be detected in the final eight-by-ten-inch photographs, and Mealtime became the only example of full-frontal nudity in a United States Post Office.

Source: David Lembeck, "Rediscovering the People's Art: New Deal Murals in Pennsylvania's Post Offices," article, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, (http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/arts_and_architecture/2805/post_office_murals/432816: posted 21 Sep 2015), para. 22.

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