Provenance: E Kenneth Center; William de Belleroche (No 84);
Literature: British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920-1960,
Sansom & Co, 2013, pp.218-231
Brangwyn's celebrated murals for the Rockefeller Center adorn the facade of the Comcast building, situated at the heart of the center at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
The murals decorate the main atrium around the entrance to the lifts.
This study, like the one for Man the Creator would appear to be the same scale as the completed mural and was probably a preparatory exercise in colouring and shading techniques.
Picasso, and Matisse were originally offered this 1932 commission for the Rockefeller Centre murals, before Brangwyn, the Spanish artist José Maria Sert and the Mexican, Diego Rivera were subsequently appointed to carry out the scheme. Critics complained that American artists should have been chosen for the prestigious work. Further controversy followed in May 1933 Rivera was prevented from ﬁnishing his mural when it was discovered that he had included a portrait of Lenin, and sympathizers of the artist clashed with police outside the building. The authorities also objected to the bright colours of the panel (Sert and Brangwyn had both agreed to paint monochrome works) and the mural was taken down and replaced by a new mural by Sert.
In September 1933, Brangwyn himself faced controversy. Ofﬁcials from the Rockefeller Center objected to the ﬁgure of Christ being included in the fourth panel, representing the Sermon on the Mount. Raymond M Hood, one of the architects of the Center, explained that, ‘some people here felt that it would not be ﬁtting to put the ﬁgure of Christ in a business building.They thought that might be too strong a representation of an individual religion’.
It was suggested that Brangwyn represented Jesus by a light shining from heaven. However the artist merely reversed his ﬁgure, so that Christ facing the populace became the back of a nameless cloaked man.
Brangwyn's paintings remain in situ: four large murals placed on the South corridor elevator banks of the RCA building each measuring 17x25ft and divided as follows: Man labouring painfully with his own hands; living precariously and adventurously, with courage, fortitude and the indomitable will to survive; Man the creator and master of the tool. Strengthening the foundations and multiplying the comforts of his abiding place; Man the master and servant of the machine, harnessing to his will the forces of the material world, mechanizing labour, and adding thereto the promise of leisure; Man’s ultimate destiny depends not on whether he can learn new lessons or make new discoveries and conquests, but on his acceptance of the lesson taught him close upon two thousand years ago.
Not more than 70–75% of the canvas was to be painted and lettering was to be included.
Brangwyn's Rockefeller murals bear comparison with those of the celebrated WPA scheme which during the 1930's resulted in more than 100,000 paintings and murals in municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals in all of the 48 states. The government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression, in which he sought to put as many unemployed Americans back to work as possible and to buoy morale of the citizens. Some of the 20th century's greatest visual artists were employed by the FAP, including Thomas Hart Benton and Stuart Davis along with many nascent Abstract Expressionists.
Thomas Hart Benton, “Instruments of Power from America Today” (1930–31), Mural cycle consisting of ten panels, Egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels with a honeycomb interior (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)