Mark Davis of the Pearl River Historical Society has posted articles on MissPres before, notably two biographical sketches of architects, P.J. Krouse and Clair M. Jones, and their lasting effect on Pearl River County. He’s back today with a fascinating article about the WPA mural in Picayune’s Post Office. Although the mural itself is hidden under layers of paint, Mark has tracked down photos that show it in its glory (along with examples of other Depression-era murals that will knock your socks off!), and has gone the extra mile in finding family members of the artist to give us a better understanding of his life and career. Thanks again to the Pearl River County Historical Society for allowing this reprint of an article that originally appeared in their October 2012 newsletter.
Enjoy, and if you feel led, help out the PRCHS in their quest to restore their mural!
Picayune’s Disappeared Mural
Donald Hall Robertson and the Lumber Region of Mississippi
In 1933 and 1934, the Public Works Art Project commissioned 4000 artists to produce 15,000 works of art in hundreds of cities and towns across the United States. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a desperate bid to battle an unemployment rate of twenty-five percent, desired the commissions to be “native, human, eager and alive—all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.”
The program was so popular and successful that, to continue it, funding was transferred to the Department of the Treasury, Section of Fine Arts from 1938-1943. Under the auspices of the U. S. Treasury, hundreds of post offices were built and decorated by the finest artists of the era. These artists were richly skilled and highly educated and each of them won his commission by submitting designs anonymously to a selection committee of fine arts advisors. Some of the winners like Philip Evergood, Peter Blume, Willem de Kooning, Grant Wood, Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton went on to careers of international renown. Others, like French émigré Lucien Labaudt, painter of the Los Angeles courthouse and San Francisco’s Beach Chalet murals, opened galleries which introduced new and experimental artists to the public for decades. Many more continued in a variety of art positions in teaching, curatorship and administration. Their work created a lasting impact on the development of art in America and on the appearance of public space in the United States.
The pieces done for the Section of Fine Arts are among the most exuberant and extraordinary art works ever produced in America, and they are among the most representative of its people. They also capture a special moment of tension between the social realism of the early twentieth century and the burgeoning abstraction of modern art.
The subjects depicted are as varied as the states themselves and range from corn and cotton harvests to the Dancing Rabbit Treaty, from Paul Revere’s ride, to Paul Bunyan. Music, the railroad, sport, mining rescues, steamboats landing, flight, industry, commerce and even radio personality Will Rogers appear in them. The New Deal murals refer to almost every aspect of American historic and mythic life.Our piece of this legacy came in the form of a post office mural done in 1940 by District of Columbia artist Donald Hall Robertson. It was titled Lumber Region of Mississippiand hung over the postmaster’s door in the newly built Picayune post office. (When Robertson and his wife called to ask about the mural in the 1970s, they discovered it had already been painted over.)
Robertson knew first hand the dire economic circumstances that had brought Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal into being. His father, Leonard Franklin Robertson, was a successful real estate developer whose business was destroyed in the aftermath of the 1929 market collapse. 1940 found him and his family living with his in-laws, William and Lucy Hall, the parents of Rachel Marie Hall Robertson. Leonard Robertson’s business never fully recovered.
Even in these reduced circumstances, Donald, born August 12, 1918, managed an education at the prestigious Corcoran Art School after graduating from Washington’s Central High School. At Corcoran, he won a series of awards including a scholarship from the Tiffany Foundation in New York. This led to a summer of painting at the foundation’s center in Long Island, New York in 1938.
When Robertson returned to Washington D. C., he took a position in the photoengraving department of The Evening Star, an historic Washington newspaper. Although he had exhibited in group shows at the Corcoran; it was not until 1939 that he scored his first major exhibition with Gustav Trois at Georgetown Galleries. A review of the exhibit in the Washington Post of March 26, 1939 mentions that Robertson had just won a mural commission from the government. It is the first reference to the Picayune mural in the public print record.
In the still dire economy, Robertson chose to go into the Army Air Corps. He enlisted at Camp Lee, Virginia on November 18, 1941, just nineteen days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His enlistment record describes him as a single, commercial artist with four years of college. He served the course of the war in Europe and North Africa, spending almost a year on the French island of Corsica. The Allies established seventeen airfields on Corsica for the assault on Italy. Robertson did not advance above PFC. Though he served with distinction, he had no military ambition.
In the quiet moments, Robertson sketched and drew at every point in his travels. He returned from the war with a portfolio of work done in Britain, France and North Africa. An exhibition of his watercolors done in Europe opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on February 10, 1946. Newspaper reviews from the time describe the Corsican paintings as sea-green, blue and buff-colored. This is a palette which Matisse also employed in his North African work of the era.
Robertson’s post war years included more study at the revered Art Student’s League in New York. There were also more exhibitions in New York, Maryland and Virginia. In this period, his work moved into abstraction.
In 1952, he met Iowa native Lillian Alverna Snyder. They married in 1953 and started a family. As he worked to support his family, Robertson’s career veered into art’s administration while his work went more deeply into abstraction. He continued painting for the remainder of his life, virtually abandoning landscape for more contemplative and symbolic modes of expression. He retired to Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Donald Hall Robertson died on April 3, 2008 and is buried under a military marker in Culpepper National Cemetery in Virginia. His epitaph reads, “A Gifted Artist, A Godly Man.” As with many artists of the New Deal, there is a resurgence of interest in his work. More than eleven hundred paintings were found in his estate and an exhibition of a selection of them is scheduled to open in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 2012.——————————————————–
1 Information from the Treasury Department Art Project Files, Mississippi. p.66. Back to post
2 Barlowe, Barrett. Purpose of New Deal Murals. Back to post
3 Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The Freedom of the Human Spirit Shall Go On,” Address at the Dedication of National Gallery of Art, March 17, 1941. From University of California, American Presidency Project. Back to post
4 Marling, Karal Ann. Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. Back to post
5 Bloom, John, Shucking Corn. De Witt, Iowa Post Office, 1938; Kelpe, Paul. The History of Southern Illinois. Southern Illinois University Library, 1939. Back to post
6 Warthen, Lee R. Cotton Scene. Hartselle, Alabama Post Office, 1941. Back to post
7 Crockwell, S. Douglass. The Signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Macon, Mississippi Post Office, 1944. Back to post
8 Ripley, Aiden Lassell, Paul Revere’s Ride. Lexington, Massachusetts Post Office, 1940. Back to post
9 Watrous, James. Paul Bunyan. University of Wisconsin Memorial Union, Madison, Wisconsin, 1933. Back to post
10 Gilmore, Marion. Band Concert. Corning, Iowa Post Office, 1941. Back to post
11 Lehman, Harold. Railroad Repair. Renovo, Pennsylvania Post Office, 1943. Back to post
12 Billings, Henry. Winter Sports. Lake Placid, New York Post Office, 1937. Back to post
13 Martin, Fletcher. Mine Rescue. Proposed but not executed design for Kellogg, Idaho Post Office, 1939. Back to post
14 Purser, Stuart R. Steamboats on the Mississippi. Gretna, Louisiana Post Office, 1939; Bunn, William E. L. Early Mississippi Steamboat. Dubuque, Iowa Post Office, 1937. Back to post
15 Ames, Arthur with Jean Goodwin, Dorr Bothwell and Helen Lundberg. The History of Aviation. Charles A. Lindbergh Middle School. Long Beach, California, 1940. Back to post
16 Cook, Howard Norton. Steel Industry. Norristown, Pennsylvania Post Office, 1936. Back to post
17 Getz, Arthur, Early Commerce in the Erie Canal Region. Lancaster, New York Post Office, 1940. Back to post
18 Davey, Randall. Will Rogers. Claremont, Oklahoma Post Office, 1939. Back to post
19 Davis, Mark. Interview of Lillian Snyder Robertson. September 28, 2012. Back to post
20 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Office of the Director. Special Exhibition of Water Colors by Donald Hall Robertson, February, 10-March 3, 1946. Exhibition Catalogue. n.p. Back to post
21 “Georgetown Galleries: Two Washington Painters have Joint Exhibition.” Washington Star, April 2, 1939. n.p. (Smithsonian Museum of American Art, scrapbook file, courtesy of Anne Evenhaugen). Back to post
22 “2 D. C. Artists Exhibit Works at Georgetown: Donald Robertson, Gustav Trois Display Canvasses.” Washington Post. March 26, 1939. n.p. (Smithsonian Museum of American Art, scrapbook file, courtesy of Anne Evenhaugen). Back to post
23 National Archives and Records Administration. U. S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946: Donald H. Robertson. Back to post
24 Washingtonian’s Corsica At Corcoran Gallery. Washington Star, February 24, 1946. n.p. (Smithsonian Museum of American Art, scrapbook file, courtesy of Anne Evenhaugen). Back to post
25 Davis, Mark. Interview of Lillian Snyder Robertson. September 28, 2012. Back to post
26 Lee, Jolie. Cool Jobs: The Mural Preservationist. February 8, 2012. FederalNewsRadio.com. Back to post
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Clinton Davis grew up in Picayune and received a Master’s in English Literature with an emphasis on Renaissance and Restoration prose and poetry from San Francisco State University. He also studied art history and printmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For two years, he worked with Margaret Kilgallen on “Untitled,” a public arts project designed by artists Ann Chamberlain and Ann Hamilton for San Francisco’s New Main Library. He is currently in his fourth year as editor of the PRCHS newsletter, The Historical Reporter.
This article reprinted with permission from Mark Clinton Davis and the Pearl River County Historical Society
Categories: Historic Preservation