By LEFTWICH DODGE KIMBROUGH
Following is an article about one of the artists commissioned to work on the Thomas Jefferson Building. Leftwich Dodge Kimbrough's grandfather, William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935), painted the murals in the Northwest Pavilion.
"The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., was the first important government building to be decorated in accordance with the idea of the unity of the arts -- an idea introduced on a grand scale by the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893," said the March 1897 Century magazine.
"The national library provided a perfect opportunity to display the newly popular art of mural painting and to introduce a public art based on broadly humanistic themes. The concept of culture as the best that man has thought or said was essentially bookish, and there was no more appropriate place to demonstrate this concept, as it was expressed by visual art, than in a library.
"The extensive program of mural painting and sculpture at the Library of Congress, carried out between 1895 and 1897, was made possible through the efficiency of General Thomas Lincoln Casey, who was able to include the decoration within the $6 million allotted for the building. Edward Pearce Casey, General Casey's son, coordinated the program of painting and sculpture and chose the artists. The project was huge; in 1895, 19 artists were commissioned to paint a total of 112 murals. At the same time 22 sculptors worked on their commissions and seven artists were employed for the ornamental decorations. The scene was filled with the spirit of the 'American Renaissance.' As one critic noted, 'The artists, like the workmen, were in overalls, and the atmosphere of the place seemed impregnated with the spirit of art and labor. It was something as it must have been in Florence or Venice in the Renaissance.'"
In 1975, the Smithsonian Institution mounted an exhibition called "Art for Architecture: Washington, D.C., 1895-1925." Referring to the work done on the Jefferson Building, the exhibition catalog said: "Although the painters were well known and in the forefront of American art, they were paid only nominal amounts, ranging from $2,200 to $8,000, depending on the amount of space they were to cover. In the opinion of most of the mural painters, the library murals were a patriotic effort and seed work for the future.
"The Library of Congress provided an important example of total decoration for architects and artists for the next several decades," the catalog text continued. "Allegorical and symbolic compositions based on humanistic themes of culture, civilization and literature, first coordinated at the Library of Congress, became a standard repertory for government buildings, libraries, and even private residences until the 1930s."
According to William de Leftwich Dodge's daughter, Sara Dodge Kimbrough, in Drawn from Life, "Having successfully completed his first murals for the architect Richard Morris Hunt's Administration Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where he was the youngest artist, and anxious to marry Fanny Bland Pryor, William de Leftwich Dodge was determined to secure one of 50 contracts for decorative work at the Library in 1895. At the time he was living and painting in Paris, where costs were less than those in New York City. As usual he was optimistic. After submitting numerous sketches, he received a commission to paint the murals in the library's Northwest Pavilion, consisting of a dome -- 25 by 25 feet [Ambition, below] and four tympanums -- each 10 by 35 feet (Literature, Music, Science and Art).
"Shortly thereafter, he was sitting in an outdoor cafe in Paris with his friend the sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies, who was later to design one of the three bronze doors ('The Art of Printing') for the main entrance to the building. 'You see, Mac, in the ceiling sketch Ambition [below], the whole thing symbolizes human life. You know, human beings are never satisfied when they reach the top rung of the ladder. That's the meaning of the people who with outstretched arms are still reaching up beyond and looking toward'" the figure holding a crown astride a winged horse.
"'Bully, Dodge. I don't see how you do it!' exclaimed Mac.
'Let me explain the rest,' Dodge continued hurriedly. 'Over here this jester [below] is laughing at the ambitious ones, for he believes, as the crowned skull [atop a scepter] in his hand indicates, that fame comes only after death to those who have slaved during life.'
'When do you think of all these ideas?' asked Mac. 'I see you at l'Ely's or Bal Bulliers almost every night.'
'Well, I'm not wasting my time with the girls now. When I get my last payment of the $8,000 allotted for the Library job I'll have enough to marry Fan. Her father, the old judge, has at last given his consent,' said Father with a broad smile."
Dodge's Library ceiling canvas, "Ambition," was initially exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1896; then it was shown at the American Art Galleries before it was sent to Washington. At the time the New York Herald wrote, "The composition is excellent, very fine in tone, and it would seem by his successful work that Mr. Dodge is reaching after the Chariot himself!"
According to Dodge's daughter, "He wanted to communicate definite ideas and felt that murals were the best media wherein the artist could speak directly to the people."
As Dodge was quoted in The American Art Journal, "I was overjoyed at being recognized by the government. It took me nearly two years to execute the job."
The seed for Dodge's interest in mural decoration was sown when he was 12, in 1879. That year, his mother, Mary de Leftwich Dodge, an aspiring artist, moved her family from their home in Virginia to Europe. After living initially in Munich they moved to Paris, where many Americans went to study art at either the state-operated Ecole des Beaux-Arts or at one of the less formal schools. According to Marjorie Balge, in the January-February 1982 Art & Antiques, "Dodge followed her example and began preparing himself for a career in art. He enrolled in the atelier of the successful Salon painter Jean Léon Gérôme." His early works were large scale and were "produced specifically for exhibition purposes and done in the historically accurate, carefully finished style promoted by Gérôme. ... In addition, Gérôme consistently advocated working from life; consequently his pupils -- more than those of other French academicians -- studied the human figure meticulously.
"This solid academic background enabled Dodge to understand the requirements of mural painting as it developed in late 19th-early 20th century America. The technique acquired by American artists in Parisian ateliers was applied to the creation of works based largely on the study of Italian Renaissance masters and the contemporary art of Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis was particularly admired for his ability to think poetically in color on large surfaces with an emphasis on simplicity and abstract design."
But Puvis's preference for dreamy idealized figures did not always find a following in America. Indeed by 1913, Edwin Blashfield, in his book on Mural Painting in America, characterized the stylistic tendency as a striving for "vigor of presentation" that involved heavy pigment and broad handling. "That bold approach to the medium is certainly reflected in the work of William de Leftwich Dodge," said the 1982 Art & Antiques.
"Used as a model for later mural projects, the Library of Congress was unparalleled in size, complexity, and decorative splendor," the article continued. "It was indeed our national monument of art, and the paintings by Dodge reinforced that idea. In the shallow, stage-like space of the four lunettes, classical figures represented various aspects of Music, Literature, Art, and Science. Ambition, the subject of the ceiling disc, symbolized the incentive for all human effort, whether in the arts or sciences."
According to Ms. Balge, "The eclecticism characteristic of Beaux-Arts training, and by extension the American Renaissance, is present in the divergent stylistic treatment of the two painted zones of the pavilion. In the lunettes ... the harmonious, rather static quality of these compositions is in direct contrast to the energetic illusionism of the ceiling painting. Here the contorted poses and drastic foreshortening of figures that appear to tumble out of the space or recede into the heavens recall works by the Italian masters Mantegna or Tiepolo. Never directly imitative, Dodge, like the rest of the artists employed on these mural projects, felt free to borrow and synthesize stylistic elements of the past in the interest of furthering the dream of American culture and civilization."
In a letter from Dodge dated March 11, 1896, at his Paris studio to Bernard R. Green, superintendent and engineer for the Library, he states, "... the ivory and gold, which you have decorated the other three pavilions with, will be quite satisfactory to me and any little thing like a spot of color here and there can be done to suit the paintings when they are in place.
"The ceiling [mural] is finished and will be in the Salon this year. [Jean Léon] Gérôme and Collin [Louis Joseph Raphael Collin, a French painter] who have seen it were very complimentary. They like it exceedingly. One of the panels I will have done in little over a week, and the three others are far advanced. I have two good men working for me all the time, and I work myself night and day. I will finish them easily before the time given.
"... I am sure that you and Mr. Casey will like them as all the big men over here do. I am trying my utmost to have them [be] the best in the Library."
An unidentified American newspaper article (circa 1896) said:
"At the studio of William Leftwich Dodge we saw some important decorations which he is doing for one of the pavilions of this library. They comprise a ceiling and four panels. The ceiling is completed, and is now being exhibited at the salon of the Champs d'Elysee, and receiving a success that is very flattering to the young painter. The four panels Mr. Dodge is working on now at his studio, and the first one, Music, he was engaged on when he descended from the high scaffolding, clad in a very workmanlike and much-bedaubed blouse, to make us welcome. The huge canvas was stretched across the length of his studio, and he and his assistant were perched in mid-air, laying on their colors from small carefully drawn sketches in front of them.
"Painters differ somewhat in their method of working, but Mr. Dodge's system of doing his decorations is perhaps the one generally used in this line of art. It would, of course, be extremely difficult, if not impossible to paint the figures in a large decoration directly from the model. Small colored sketches of the composition are first made and the separate figures are then most carefully drawn, perhaps a third lifesize, or a third or fourth the exact size of the figures of the decoration. The large canvas is then commenced, and a large part of the work is purely mechanical and consists of a nice mathematical calculation.
"... Mr. Dodge is one of the most prominent of the band of young American artists who, while making their home in Paris, have won a measure of success in their own country.
"... Decoration seems to be a most important feature now and a form of art to which we are giving the most encouragement in America and Mr. Dodge's career in this direction will be watched with interest."
After completing the Library of Congress murals Dodge married Fanny Pryor and in 1900 moved to New York City where he went on to become one of the country's leading mural painters. His work for many New York City theaters included the Empire, Folies Bergère (now the Helen Hayes), Winter Garden, Lowe's and others. Other buildings that included his decorations were the original Hotel Waldorf Astoria on Fifth Avenue, the Hotel Astor, the Hotel Algonquin, Cafe de l'Opera, Cafe Martin and the Hall of Records of the Surrogate Court of the State of New York, where both oils and mosaics exist. Recently, in Boston, his murals have been restored at the Emerson-Majestic Theatre. In addition, he painted murals for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Flag Room of the New York State Capitol in Albany and the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco (not currently exhibited). He also painted decorations for steamers on the Great Lakes, private residences and many other public buildings in America.
In 1903 Dodge was commissioned by Louis Comfort Tiffany to paint murals depicting the history of Canada in the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. After completion, Tiffany requested some major changes. Dodge refused because he felt they would alter the integrity of his work. His father-in-law, Roger A. Pryor, represented him in a suit against Tiffany Studios. The court ruled in Dodge's favor, and the case became a landmark in the effort to preserve artists' rights: "It has been decreed by the Supreme Court [New York] that an artist's work cannot be altered without his consent and at the same time have his name attached to it."
"The American success and recognition of Dodge," wrote Ms. Balge, "was based primarily on his reputation as a mural painter, but his talent extended well beyond that. Certainly on the strength of his oils and watercolors alone, Dodge invites comparison with the best of his American and European counterparts."
An exhibition of Dodge's easel paintings, including landscapes, figurative and marine works, is being planned by the Beacon Hill Fine Art gallery in New York City for the spring of 1998.