George Rogers Clark Memorial
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The Murals and Statues

A. Ezra Winter and His Murals

1. Winter Contracts for Seven Murals

The Executive Committee met on August 22, 1930, to discuss the choice of a painter and sculptor to collaborate with Architect Hirons. Hirons brought with him to the Vincennes meeting photographs and drawings illustrative of the work of muralists Eugene Savage arid Ezra Winter, and sculptors Charles Keck and Hermon A. MacNeil. Among subjects proposed by those in attendance for murals were: Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and others sending George Rogers Clark to the West; scenes at Harrodsburg, Corn Island, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia; Clark and DeLeyba at St. Louis; Father Gibault administering the oath to the citizens of Vincennes; the attack on Fort Sackville; the surrender of Fort Sackville; the battle of Fallen Timbers; William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh at Vincennes; "Three Flag Day" at St. Louis on the occasion of the United States taking possession of the Louisiana Purchase; a scene from the Lewis and Clark expedition; a panorama representing the development of the Old Northwest; and an ornamental map of the Old Northwest. Because of the divergence of opinion, action on the subject was deferred by the Committee. [1]

At the September 17 meeting of the Executive Committee, it was determined that the "primary emphasis of the memorial and its paintings and sculpture be upon the winning of the Old Northwest, with individuals as decided upon." Monsignor Gavisk moved that the Committee proceed to the selection of a painter and suggested that Ezra Winter be invited to meet with the group. [2]

Winter met with the committee on October 2, and the group was impressed with the handsome 45-year-old Michigander. A specialist in life-sized paintings, Winter maintained a studio in New York City, within easy commuting distance of his home in Canaan, Connecticut. Before the day was over, Winter had a contract for preliminary work on seven murals. [3]

On October 9 the Commission approved the action of its Executive Committee in engaging Winter for the mural paintings for the memorial. He was to be paid $10,000 for his preliminary work to include "first and finished sketches of seven panels, each of them approximately" 15 by 26 feet, the final sketches to be submitted before March 1, 1931. This sum would be deducted from the final fee for the murals, which was not to exceed $100,000. [4]

2. The Scenes to be Depicted are Determined

The Executive Committee spent 90 minutes in Winter's Grand Central Station Studio on November 19, 1930. Out of their discussions with the artist came a number of decisions. It was determined that one of the panels would show Clark's march across the drowned lands and another the surrender of Fort Sackville, depicting, if possible, the church, the stockade, and the Wabash. Above the murals there would be large medallions containing bas-reliefs of American leaders in the Revolution—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Henry, Mason, and John Adams. Between the portrait medallions were to be inscriptions. A frieze of sculpture in relief was to encircle the rotunda under the murals. A map of the Old Northwest was to be on the ceiling. Three media—inscriptions, paintings, and sculpture—were to be employed to impress visitors with the "process by which the Old Northwest was won and occupied during the American Revolution, with the heroism and achievements of George Rogers Clark and his associates, and with the significance and importance of both of the foregoing." [5]

When the Executive Committee returned to New York City on March 20, 1931, and visited Winter's studio, Monsignor Gavisk urged that the five remaining murals should depict: (a) Clark receiving his commission from Governor Patrick Henry; (b) Clark negotiating with the Indians at Cahokia; (c) the battle of Piqua; (d) the raising of the United States flag at St. Louis, with members of the Lewis and Clark expedition present; and (e) the westward movement. In the upper part of each mural, there should be a relevant map. At the request of Chairman Culbertson, Gavisk put his ideas in the form of a motion, and they were adopted. [6]

Six months later, on September 21, the Executive Committee met with Winter at his New York City studio to examine and discuss the preliminary sketches. It was decided that the maps be small cartouches at the top of each mural and not backgrounds, occupying the entire upper part of the paintings. The subjects, except the one depicting the battle of Piqua, were approved, and Winter directed to proceed. In place of the Piqua mural, Winter was requested to develop sketches representing the settlement of the Old Northwest, at Marietta, on the basis of the Ordinance of 1787. [7]

Ezra Winter was in Vincennes on December 6. He spent the day studying the Fort Sackville site, and took a number of photographs. He paid particular attention to the trees to insure that he would paint them in their "February gauntness." That evening at Culbertson's home, the artist showed a select group the three sets of drawings he had prepared for each of the seven murals. Culbertson and his friends were impressed, and they agreed that selecting the best would be difficult. Culbertson was especially impressed with the ones of the march across the drowned lands, and one could "fairly hear Clark shout to his men to come on, as he sweeps his gun aloft."

Winter told his audience of his intensive research for background materials. On doing so, he had found the coat General Clark wore on his epic campaign in the John Marshall Museum in Richmond. To insure accuracy, Winter had had photographs taken of the coat. Culbertson, on hearing this exclaimed, "Vincennes should have that coat, it belongs to us." [8]

On April 7, 1932, the Executive Committee again met with Winter, and, after examining his color sketches, determined on the subjects for the murals. They were to be: (a) the Wilderness Road, (b) Clark Treating with the Indians at Cahokia, (c) the March on Vincennes, (d) the Attack on Fort Sackville, (e) the Surrender of Fort Sackville, (f) the Proclamation of the Northwest Ordinance at Marietta, and (g) Taking Possession for the United States of the Louisiana Territory at St. Louis. [9] Culbertson at the April 26 meeting showed Winter's rendered sketches of the seven murals. These sketches were approved, and Winter was directed to proceed with the execution of the contract. [10]

3. Winter Completes the Murals

The Executive Committee on November 20 was in New York City and called at Winter's Grand Central Station Studio and inspected mock-ups of the murals. They were approved subject to certain changes. Among these were: in the Cahokia mural it was suggested that Father Gibault and Francis Vigo "might well be represented in the background"; in the march on Fort Sackville mural further study was to be made of some of the figures, especially the drummer boy, "and that an effort be made to bring out the hardships of the march, the exhaustion of the men and their desperate situation"; and in the St. Louis mural "Meriwether Lewis be made more conspicuous and that a trail leading to the Far Northwest be shown with pack horses on it." [11]

At its meeting on March 31, 1933, the Executive Committee approved titles for six of the seven murals. A number of titles were suggested for Mural No. 6, the one commemorating the Ordinance of 1787, but no agreement was reached.

Architect Hirons argued that he favored making the border at the top of the murals wider than the borders at the sides and bottoms, so as to harmonize with the capitals of the pilasters. It was agreed to have Winter place at the tops of the murals a border corresponding to the height of the capitals of the pilasters, and that the borders of each panel carry the seals of two of the first 13 states, with the seal of the "Territory Northwest of the River Ohio" as the 14th seal. Finally, the seal of the Continental Congress, or of the United States, was to be centered on the skylight. [12]

The Committee on August 6 traveled to Falls Village, Connecticut, to where Winter had been compelled by the size of the murals to move his studio. The group approved the murals, subject to a few minor corrections needed to insure accuracy. It was determined to have Winter work into the borders a "design of oak leaf, sycamore leaf, pine cone, and pine needle . . . similar to the oak leaf border already done." This border was to alternate with "ears of corn, etc." Winter was urged to position the murals in the memorial as soon as possible. [13]

4. Mounting the Murals

In the second week of November 1934, Winter notified the committee that he planned to reach Vincennes in two weeks with his works of art. Preparatory for his arrival, Fred Steimel, a local contractor, positioned a high, mobile scaffold in the rotunda of the memorial. [14] The murals reached the city on November 30 from the artist's Connecticut studio, but their arrival was kept secret until December 2, when Culbertson returned from Indianapolis and made a public announcement. [15]

On Monday, the 3d, Winter detrained in Vincennes, and that night he showed his murals to a select group at the memorial. Winter, aided by his assistant Joseph Smith, unrolled each of them on the floor and trimmed each to the proper size to fit the space on the wall where it was to be placed. Each was then re-rolled ready for mounting. The murals caused Culbertson and his friends to wax enthusiastic. They were impressed by the more than 150 figures, with those in the foreground standing eight and one-half feet tall. [16]

Winter and Smith turned a crew to preparing the murals for hanging. The preliminary work saw them coating the wall with a backing consisting of a mixture of white lead and varnish to a depth of one-eighth inch. This was then carefully smoothed, and the first canvas, "The Wilderness Road," carefully rolled onto the prepared surface. The mixture, on drying, sealed the mural to the wall. One ton of white lead was used before the seven canvases were secured. [17]

Murals two and three were positioned by Thursday evening. Although the structure was temporarily closed to visitors, members of the press given a sneak preview by Culbertson reported that these first murals changed "entirely the atmosphere of the memorial, transforming the coldness of the marble and stone, to a soft richness of beautiful blended colors." [18]

The last of the seven murals was hung on Thursday, the 13th, one day ahead of schedule. Contractor Steimel left the scaffolding in position until the end of the year to enable Winter and Smith to touch up the murals, to remove smudges that had appeared on them during handling, and to add certain "artistic touches of details intentionally omitted until after the paintings" were mounted to insure the best effects from lighting and the surroundings. After the colors had dried, the murals were shellacked. [19]

Senator Fess, chairman of the National Commission, reached Vincennes at noon on December 17, 1934, and accompanied by Dr. Coleman and Culbertson, inspected the murals. Fess was delighted with what he saw, and, in accordance with the recommendation of the Executive Committee, Winter received his final payment for the seven murals. [20]

B. The Clark, Gibault, and Vigo Statues

1. MacNeil's Statue of George Rogers Clark

The Executive Committee spent several sessions in the late summer and early autumn of 1930 discussing the merits of Charles Keck and Hermon A. MacNeil, the men recommended by Architect Hirons for consideration as sculptor for the memorial statue. Before making a decision as to whom to employ, it was determined by the group to hold a meeting in New York City in Hirons" office to examine their work and to inspect models. [21]

Two days, November 18 and 19, were spent by four members of the Executive Committee in New York City. The morning of the 18th was spent at the studio of Lee Lawrie, and the afternoon at Joseph Kiselewski's. At the latter, they saw Kiselewski's model of the memorial and grounds. On the 19th the group visited Keck's and MacNeil's studios. They chatted with the two artists and inspected models and studied photographs of their respective work. After returning to Indiana, the four men who had made the New York trip explained to other members of the Executive Committee the respective merits of Keck and MacNeil. It was determined at the December 1, 1930, meeting to employ MacNeil as sculptor for the proposed statuary. [22]

In September 1931 the Executive Committee visited MacNeil's New York City studio. MacNeil showed them a clay model of a portrait statue of Clark, draped in a military cloak. Liking what they saw, the committee told him to "develop his subject." [23] Confronted by a shortage of funds, it was July 1933 before the committee was able to meet with MacNeil to decide upon the size of the Clark statue. [24]

MacNeil on September 3 showed the Executive Committee photographs of the model of the Clark statue he had prepared for the center of the memorial with a base of Formosa marble. The projected statue was discussed and a number of suggestions made, which MacNeil said would be considered. He told the committee that he would execute the statue, the base and subbase, bronze plaque, and marble flooring for $36,711.75. His proposal was accepted, with the provision that the statue be eight feet ten inches in height. [25]

MacNeil by March 1934 had finished his model. When he inspected it, Culbertson gave his approval. [26] The artist next made arrangements to have his work of art cast by the Roman Bronze Works. This was done in the autumn of 1934.

The statue, pedestal, and sculptor reached Vincennes in the first week of December. With Winter and his men at work hanging the murals, the memorial was closed, which would facilitate positioning the bronze Clark. On Tuesday, December 4, 1934, workmen from the Alabama Marble Company began placing the stone which would surround the bronze plaque to be set in the floor, and on the 6th they positioned the pedestal. The statue was placed on December 7. [27]

A critic who viewed the Clark bronze on the 8th was delighted with what he saw. He was glad that Clark was dressed in the uniform of a Continental officer, with his great cloak thrown carelessly around his shoulders, rather than in the "tattered nondescript uniform of the Indian fighter." Thus garbed, he gave the Midwest "a tone of culture." While their history had color and romance, it enhanced their appreciation to have "a conception" of Clark, above "the Daniel Boones who were great but not of his greatness. We like to think of him as a man who could sit down to a state dinner with the Washingtons and the Adamses and feel comfortable," the critic wrote. [28]

2. Polasek's Gibault and Angel's Vigo

The Executive Committee, on learning that Congress had authorized the expenditure of another $250,000 on the memorial, on June 26, 1933, asked Landscape Architect Parsons to submit a list of sculptors from which artists could be selected to do the Francis Vigo and Father Gibault statues. [29] After listening to a report submitted by Parsons, the Committee on January 8, 1934, directed Dr. Coleman to write Albin Polasek of Chicago and John Angel of New York. The former would be asked to make a study for a statue of Father Gibault for the plaza in front of the cathedral, and the latter sketches of a Vigo statue for a setting at the seawall between the memorial and the Wabash. [30]

On January 29, 1934, the two artists met with the Executive Committee. Angel recommended that the Vigo be a full length statue. It was agreed that it be of granite, face the memorial, that Angel should consult with Hirons and prepare models. In reference to the Gibault statue, there was discussion whether it should be considered "primarily in the scale of the church or the memorial grounds, or whether it should be a full length statue or a bust." It was determined to have Polasek prepare silhouettes of various sizes. [31]

The artists returned to Vincennes on March 19 with their models and silhouettes. Polasek's conception of Gibault represented him standing with head uplifted, a crucifix in one hand and a scroll in the other, both pressed against the body. The Committee liked what it saw and directed Polasek to proceed with development of his model, with several slight modifications. He was invited to submit estimates for the cost of a bronze statue of the priest, about eight feet in height, upon a pedestal and base totaling five feet. Angel was asked to prepare a model of Vigo seated. [32]

Angel had completed his model of the seated Vigo by June. Parsons, on visiting his New York studio, recommended to the committee that Angel be given a contract to prepare a granite figure of Vigo, both statue and pedestal to be of Mount Airy granite. The statue was to be one piece, eight feet in height, resting on a three-foot six-inch pedestal. For this work the artist was to be paid $30,000. The necessary papers were signed. [33]

Before work was started on the statue, it was decided by mutual agreement to permit Angel to substitute West Chelmsford granite for the North Carolina stone. [34]

Polasek had completed and had received the approval of the Executive Committee of his model by the first week of February 1935. In mid-June the bronze statue, having been cast, was shipped to Vincennes and positioned on its pedestal in the Old Cathedral Plaza. Within several days, it had to be removed and sent to the Vincennes Foundry & Machine Company for minor alterations. Its removal caused considerable comment when the statue was missed, and the locals were glad to see it back on its pedestal on July 3. The official unveiling, however, was delayed until the dedication of the memorial by President Roosevelt in June 1936. [35]

A strike of stonecutters at the West Chelmsford quarry delayed Angel for six months, and it was February 1936 before he was able to assure the Commission that he would have his statue of Vigo positioned well before June 14, the date President Roosevelt was scheduled to dedicate the memorial. [36]

Angel was as good as his word, and in the last week of April, the statue, on which he had worked for more than two years, was loaded on to a flat car at Lowell, Massachusetts. The seven-foot seated Vigo was, for protection, buried in a box of sand. The ten-ton statue reached Vincennes early on April 29, and the anxious artist detrained 12 hours later. After checking in at the Grand, Angel, accompanied by a reporter, dashed off to inspect his work of art. They found the car spotted by the Baltimore & Ohio on the memorial grounds. Although it was dark, the two men climbed up onto the car and by flashlight examined and found the statue had survived its rail trip. [37]

The positioning of the Vigo on its site between the memorial and seawall, where it would face the Illinois prairies, was delayed several days, awaiting the arrival of a crew led by Austin Snyder from St. Louis. Snyder and his people specialized in this type of work. On Saturday, the 2d, Snyder's crew employed a large derrick to remove the massive granite figure from the car and place it within a few feet of its base. To protect the head and face during this operation, they were covered. On May 4 the base was positioned, and the statue set. On both days such crowds watched the workmen that they had difficulty getting "elbow room." [38]

C. Maintenance of the Murals

1. The Proposal for Replacing the Clear with Frosted Glass

In the late summer of 1940, the State of Indiana had assumed responsibility for maintenance of the memorial. Robert Starrett was employed by the Department of Conservation, the administering agency, as curator in 1946. When he visited Vincennes in August of that year, Starrett took cognizance of the bright "sunlight streaming through the clear glass in the front of the structure onto the murals." He believed that this was causing them to fade. Moreover, the custodian had complained that keeping the windows clean was a major maintenance problem, because temporary scaffolding had to be employed. [39]

Following up on Starrett's report that the sunlight coming through. the glassed area was causing sections of the murals to fade, Director Robert F. Wirsching wrote Ezra Winter. He wanted the artist's opinion on Starrett's suggestion regarding the substitution of frosted glass for the clear lights. [40]

Winter replied that in 25 years he had never had any trouble with fading in his murals, but then none of his paintings were as directly exposed to strong sunlight as those in the Clark Memorial. He pointed out that the colors in "The March Through the Flooded Plains" and the "Battle of Fort Sackville" had never been as strong as the others, because one "scene represents Gray Day and the other Early Morning." He, however, planned to visit Vincennes in the near future to examine his paintings.

Winter, however, endorsed Starrett's proposal to employ frosted glass to diffuse the sunlight. [41] Lack of funds in the Department's budget for 1946-47 prevented the installation of the frosted glass, and Starrett's proposal was permitted to die. [42]

2. The Winter Interpretive Exhibit

Starrett in 1948 prepared and installed an exhibit in the memorial to interpret Winter's painting of the murals. As the only objects available at the park were a few well-worn brushes, some flattened paint tubes, and several battered palettes, he wrote the artist in hopes of securing sketches, photographs, armatures, or models. Winter failed to reply, and Starrett had to proceed with his exhibit, employing the few available objects. [43]

3. Proposals to Clean the Murals Fail to Jell

In April 1948 John P. Jones, a Vincennes painter and decorator, contacted the Department and broached the subject of his being given a contract to clean the murals. [44] Jones was informed that no decision on the cleaning and care of the murals would be made until after Winter's scheduled visit to the area. [45]

Two months later, the Department received a letter from Charles Gulbrandsen, a painter, who had written at Winter's suggestion. If it were convenient with the Department, Gulbrandsen would fly to Vincennes in July and give estimates as to the cost of cleaning and refinishing the murals. [46] As the Department would have to bear the expenses of Gulbrandsen's trip, Starrett told him not to come. [47] While the Department was preparing to make use of Jones' services, a letter arrived from Gulbrandsen, stating that he and Winter planned to be in Vincennes in mid-August to inspect the murals. [48]

Gulbrandsen arrived without Winter and spent one day, August 18, examining the murals. He found them in need of a thorough cleaning. He proposed to clean and refinish them, and apply an air jet to the surface of the limestone piers and capitals to remove all surface dust for $4240. [49] If the Department were to underwrite the project, Director K. R. Cougill would have to seek an appropriation from the 1949 session of the General Assembly. [50]

Before the legislature could act or Winter could forward any objects for the exhibit interpreting the painting of the murals, the artist committed suicide on April 7, 1949. The famed muralist had been in bad health for about a year before he shot himself to death in the woods adjoining his Canaan, Connecticut, estate. [51]

In January 1950, Jones called on Starrett and urged the Department to contract with him to clean the murals. Starrett replied that no funds were available; that when they were budgeted, the cleaning would be done on a competitive bid; and that he would have to see in writing the treatment Jones proposed. [52] Jones in turn, contacted Gulbrandsen and asked for information as to how the murals should be treated. Gulbrandsen refused the information, because he believed the cleaning and refinishing of the murals should not be entrusted to a house painter as the results could be disastrous. [53]

Although Starrett was cognizant of the problem, the Department of Conservation was never able to allot funds for cleaning the murals. In 1964, two years before the National Historical Park was established, Starrett sought, in vain, to get $5,000 budgeted for restoration of the murals by an expert. [54]

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Last Updated: 17-Sep-2001