Taos County Courthouse Murals

Taos County Courthouse Murals

When the new courthouse was completed in January 1934, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) commissioned four of Taos’ premier artists to paint ten murals in the facility as part of the New Deal, to alleviate some of the crunching poverty resulting from the Depression. 15 million people were out of work in the US. Tens of thousands of those were artists. The Taos Artists, despite their renown, were not immune to the effects of the economy. It was said that Victor Higgins would visit the Heptagon Gallery every single day, in hopes of having sold some work and procuring a check for the commission. Of the importance of the WPA projects in resurrecting what little was left of the capacity of the artists to ply their work, Francis O’Connor stated, “…the art they could produce was the first of the stricken nations’ expendable luxuries.” However, the invention of the mural decoration program by the FDR administration wasn’t just that. It was also… personal… and revolutionary. George Biddel, an artist from a prominent Philadelphia family, had attended Groton and then Harvard with the president. In a letter dated two months after the inauguration, Biddle approaches FDR and proposes that the young generation of artists is hungry, and not just for food, but for change, inspired by muralist revolutionaries in Mexico like Diego Rivera. Biddle argued that these young American artists could, if given the opportunity, use mural art as a way of developing an intentional, expressive, even idealistic national expression. FDR decided to give them the chance to prove Biddle right. The program, in various names and iterations but always led by the Treasury Department, lasted ten years, putting all manner of artists back to work to create a new vision for the recovering country. Program Director Edward Bruce, however, wanted nothing of the “Mexican invasion” and insisted that all WPA projects be clean and socially… responsible. What resulted, in most cases, was a scrubbed clean modernist version of Americana. All told, the New Deal put 12 million Americans to work at a cost of $2billion. The program was so successful that French diplomat Raoul Dufy came to Washington to study the program to determine if it was a prototype the French would like to borrow.

Interior Photographs of murals being prepared, Taos News 1938

New Deal projects in New Mexico employed more than half of the 400k people living in New Mexico. Of those, 167 were artists, who completed 65 murals, more than 650 pieces of portable art, and 10 sculptures for New Mexico’s civic and community spaces.

Four of Taos’ premier artists were engaged for the Taos WPA effort: Emil Bisttram, Ward Lockwood, Bert Phillips, and Victor Higgins. They would become known as the “Taos Fresco Quartet.”

The original intent of the project was to have 13 panels of murals - 11 narrow vertical ones, a round medallion over the entrance, and Higgins’ large central Ten Commandments piece. The ten completed murals were originally supposed to recount events in Taos history, however at some point either the artists or their directors changed the subject of the murals to a much more serious and dramatic theme – the use and misuse of the law – described artistically in vivid scenes and titled in both English and Spanish. Commentators and contemporaries at the time of the murals noted that none of the works tended to be authentic to the “place” or “people” of Taos, explaining that “the compositions are allegorical because the historical events of Taos are yet subjects of bitter controversy.”

The murals were completed in March of 1934, after three months of work. The murals are constructed of tempera pigment mixed with distilled water and applied to a fresh coat of wet lime plaster, laid on several more coats of plaster.

The project was managed locally by PWAP regional coordinator, famous Santa Fe artist Gustav Baumann, and supported by assistants, including Amarante Maes, who, along with Baumann, appears in the most well-known photo of the work as it is being completed. Taosena Ila McAfee, whose scrapbook provided part of the more interesting articles for this report, also reported that she had been allowed “to help with the mixing of the sand, but not to paint.” Renowned female Taos artist Gene Kloss had wanted to be involved in the project however was not invited, which turned out to be a loss for the courthouse, as the wildly successful painter was shortly inducted into the National Academy of Design.

The project was marked by schedule issues, plaster preparation issues, consistency problems requiring additional sand be brought in from Rinconada and washed at the river at Placita, and painting issues - including a six-fingered woman painted by Emil Bisttram, even dangerous mishaps like Bert Phillips falling off the scaffolding one day.

Reports at the time worried about how the murals were going to be maintained, financially, and whether they would fall off the walls, once it was discovered that the structure of the building on the North side of the structure was failing.

An eleventh mural was completed in 1994 by renowned New Mexican fresco artist Frederico Vigil, after he conserved the ten original murals.

EMIL BISTTRAM

Aspiration / Asperación

Subject: A mother holds a child in her arms while a bare-chested man reaches his hands up to the sky in a gesture of receiving. The women holding the child is sitting in a bowl of wheat, which might have been an allegorical reference to Taos being a wheat producing area until a devastating drought in the 1920s.

Notes: The piece has a slightly diagonal emphasis in the top half of the piece, from upper left to lower right. The bottom of the piece seems to be more spherical. Art historians note that the bottom half of the woman in this painting remarkably similar to his 1932 work Consolation, with exaggeratedly large legs and arms, and an exposed sole of the foot, which identified him as being “under a Mexican influence” and have been compared to those of Rivera’s work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It has also been noted that the pose of the woman and child, including their touching hands, may be a subtle nod to the locally revered subject of Madonna and Child.

Reconciliation / Reconciliación

Subject: In the foreground, a working man’s child, educated by a nun, reminds him to turn to God first with her finger raised towards the heavens. A young man works in the middle ground laboring to build a masonry wall. A completed home in the upper left of the background implies life and completion of that building project. A much older man comforts a covered female in the background. Beyond them, a small homestead and fields lead to the mountains in the distance.

Notes: Smithsonian and other art archives make NO note of the content of this painting. Oddly. It has a very clear fore, middle, and background.

Transgression / Transgresión (no. 177)

Subject: At the base of a ruined corner of a building - which by all appearances could well be the ruins of the mission at the Pueblo that was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt (due in large part to some marauders who were not Indian but pretended to be) - in a ruined timber structure… a covered figure of either a Pueblo man or a covered woman weeps over the lifeless prone figure of a shirtless man in the foreground. In the midground, a masked and caped figure carrying a knife looks off to the left, while another man carrying a bag hides his face while also moving left behind the masked figure in the background.

Notes: This painting has been described as having “remarkable angularity, a dark subject, and overtones of violence.” There is a spiral emphasis clearly evident in the piece. Again, Bisttram has layered the painting, almost as in the layers of a complicated stage set.

VICTOR HIGGINS

Moses the Law Giver / Moises El Legislador

 

Subject: Higgins’ 12 foot by 7 foot Moses the Law Giver represents in many ways the culmination of his work, with its dramatic sage-dotted stormy landscape in the background, a rocky cubist landscape in the mid and fore ground, and simple, humble… lonely… Moses figure, in the largest of the Taos murals, centered over what would have been the bench of the court.

Notes: Higgins prepared for the project by completing a series of preliminary drawings, a watercolor, two oil panels, and some Masonite pieces, which would serve as models for the final work. Originals of the preliminary Masonite works are held at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. The study in oil on canvas is held by the Santa Fe Art Foundation. Watercolors of the preliminary paintings are held at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe.

WARD LOCKWOOD

Superfluous Laws Oppress / Demasiadas Leyes Oprimen

Subject: In the distance, a clearly American (Greek revival) capitol building at the base of steep, angular mountains. A blind justice, her arms missing and her scales flung, falls into the wreck of a structure composed of books and briefcases that are crushing the men and women. An elaborate hand-carved Spanish Pueblo Revival style corbel marks the top right corner of the piece.

Notes: MISLABLED IN BUILDING as Oppress, not Suppress

The mural has a lower-left to upper right diagonal emphasis with very angular features on everything but the humans depicted. The sensual, flowing bottom character in this painting is reported to be Lockwood’s wife, Clyde Bonebrake, whom he met and married in Kansas City in 1924. A local art historian suggests that the mountain and capitol building in this mural might have a hidden double meaning, in that Taos locals tend to revere a mystical type of power emanating from our local mountain, one that has a greater hold on the people than any “mere government.” It could be that this piece is making reference to the government trying to overcome the power of the place.

Justice Begets Content / Justicia Causa Felicidad

 

Subject: In the background, a man in a vine-covered hat with a yellow kerchief rides a dunn colored horse towards the far left of the frame. A woman in a blue dress stands in the mid-frame, looking slightly to the left, over a seated grandmother in a white blanket and skirt and traditional Puebloan full-height light colored leather moccasins and her hair in braids with ribbons the color of the center girl’s dress. She is sitting and her foot is resting on a Navaho chief’s blanket. The grandmother figure also looks off slightly to the left while she plays her hide drum, which, interestingly, is in the style of Cochiti Pueblo, as Taos Pueblo drums are traditionally left unpainted. It appears as if the artist took some liberties in this piece, as Navaho blankets are traditionally used to bury people at Taos Pueblo and wouldn’t be used in this way.

Notes: The mural has a lower-left to upper right diagonal emphasis, as Lockwood was known for.

This was one of the very rare occasions that Lockwood painted a Native American. He completed several studies of several models for the process.

Avarice Breeds Crime / Avaricia Engendra Crimen (no. 179)

 

Subject: The predominant figure of this unsigned piece is in the mid-ground. A tall man bleeding from a stab wound on the left side of his rib cage holds a bundle on his right shoulder, out of reach of two bloodied men laying in the fore and background, who tear at the primary figures shirt and pants until they are ripped. The man in the foreground, who has been stabbed, holds a stick in his right hand. There’s a bloody knife behind him and to the left, just out of reach of the primary figure. There are gold coins spread all around the base of the frame, spilled from another bag which has fallen, suggesting that the bundle the primary figure holds is also full of gold. There is a vulture flying in the background in the right portion of the mural.

Notes: Companion piece to “Justice”, however this one uses a triangular vertical emphasis.

Sufficient Law Protects / Ley Suficiente Protégé (no. 182)

 

Subject: A man in the background applies plaster to an adobe house. A stand of aspen latillas add diagonal emphasis, from upper left to lower right. A dark loose-haired woman with child, with a distinctively Madonna and Child quality, walks from left to right across the left side of the midground, with a concerned look on her face, and wearing extremely unpractical high-heeled shoes. The child looks directly at the viewer. Behind the woman, the walls of the compound are made of the same books as in the companion piece, Superfluous Laws Oppress, located just a few feet away. A man in the mid and foreground strips bark off a viga. His yellow jacket rests on three other vigas in the foreground at the base of the work. 4 chickens peck at the ground beneath him

Notes: It almost appears as if the man in this is related to Bisttram’s Reconciliation figure. The painting is described in Smithsonian literature as “two men building a home for a woman and child.”

BERT PHILLIPS

The Shadow of Crime / La Sombra del Crimen

Subject: A mother comforts her child at the left, standing outside a home with blue trim painted doors and windows (a common evil-warding technique in NM), while a strongly built man in handcuffs walks with shoulders hunched and head hung low through a jail cell door at right. A vulture skull, like a reverse sun, casts a shadow over the scene. There is a village in the background and a mountain off in the distance.

Notes: Triangular emphasis overall with strong vertical emphasis at the left and right edges. Described by the Smithsonian: “A mother and child huddle at left while a man in handcuffs walks with shoulders hunched through a door at right. An animal skull lurks above the wall.” This piece is unsigned, however it is clearly a Phillips piece based on his distinctive cross-hatching technique of the sky and building planes.

Obedience Casts Out Fear / Obediencia Abondana Miedo

Subject: Two men on a hill above a small village. One, shirtless, in a white pant and woven belt, holds a double-barbed whip with his right hand. His left hand is directed towards the heavens, with two fingers extended. The other man, in a blue sarong and wrap, cowers below him.

Notes: This painting has a vertical emphasis with a triangular base. Both men are fully addressing the viewer. The piece is listed as both Phillips and Lockwood at Smithsonian, however, this piece of all three murals, most clearly illustrates Phillip’s known background hatching techniques.

FREDERICO VIGIL

Respect Creates Harmony / Armonia Trae Respeto

Subject: In the background, a symbiotic relationship of man and nature, and based on tradition… has made the landscape beautiful, colorful, and fruitful. An orchard fruits at the base of a mountain on the upper left, a late-period traditional adobe home and fields decorate the space beyond in the upper right. An angel - a common companion in San Ysidro iconography - plows the fields using a bull, on the left. San Ysidro, in period garb, a hat, and carrying a basket of food in his right hand also carries  a walking stick (ox goad?) and moves from upper left to lower right, to intercept a money-treaded silver colored digging machine that has already plowed over a lamb, before it runs over a Madonna-and-Childesque figure.

Notes: Painted in 1994. It is unclear where any of these characters are supposed to be from as the color and decoration of their clothing is atypical to this area of New Mexico.

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