Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on June 23, 2005 with the permission of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. This text is excerpted from the 84 page illustrated exhibition catalogue titled Heroic America: James Daugherty's Mural Drawings from the 1930s, published in 1998 by the Art Center. The catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name, held at the Art Center April 3 through June 7, 1998.

If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center directly through either this phone number or web address:


Heroic America: James Daugherty's Mural Drawings from the 1930s

by Rebecca E. Lawton



"I have tried to evolve something which belongs to and is a part of life today in the United States." - James Daugherty



Born 1 June 1887, in Asheville, North Carolina, James Henry Daugherty spent his early childhood along the banks of the Wabash River, near Lafayette, Indiana.[l] Both parents, Charles Michael (d. 1919), and Susan Peyton Telfair Daugherty (1858-1920), had a background in farming. They raised two children, James Henry, whom the family affectionately called Jamie (later Jimmie) , and a younger son, William Telfair, born in Lafayette in 1890. The Daughertys made their home a highly cultured environment, one that respected books as fervently as the land they depended upon for their livelihood. (Fig. 1)

In autobiographical notes, [2] Daugherty fondly recalled life at his mother's family farm in Wilmington, Ohio.[3] He described Wilmington as "a rural community of Arcadian simplicity," where he reveled in the company of a maternal grandfather and two maternal uncles, William and John. William practiced law, and John, who had once attempted to play professional baseball, worked occasional jobs as a mechanic in local factories, although Daugherty remembered him spending much of the time hunting squirrels and pheasants. John Telfair also entertained his nephews with mechanical projects, acrobatic exercises, and by telling legends of frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Equally important was Daugherty's grandfather, who also told remarkable tales about frontier life, as well as giving spellbinding accounts of African expeditions, loosely based upon Henry Morton Stanley's adventures in the Congo, which had been widely reported in American newspapers and published by Stanley in 1890 under the title, In Darkest Africa.

Both uncles and grandfather played key roles in shaping Daugherty's romantic vision of America. They passed onto him an enduring enthusiasm for American culture, its infatuation with sports -- especially baseball -- and its nostalgia for a romantic past. As a result, frontiersmen and famous statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson appeared and reappeared countless times in Daugherty's art, poetry, and prose. His desire to express the spirit of his own time forged his vision as an American modernist, while his reverence for the noble and courageous figures of history and folklore molded his creative sensibility, providing the wellspring from which his heroic portrait of life during the 1930s developed.

Surviving family letters suggest that Daugherty spent his childhood within a warm, loving, close-knit family.[4] His father, a graduate of the University of Michigan, became a statistician for the United States Department of Agriculture in the mid-1890s, thus moving the family to Washington, D.C. Both parents loved English and American literature and exposed their children at an early age to poetry and the classics. The nightly family ritual of reading aloud introduced the Daugherty children to a wide range of literature, encompassing authors as diverse as Chaucer and Mark Twain. Daugherty recalled that his father read with "such abandoned delight [he] made audible that mystic inner music that only children and poets can hear." [5]

Daugherty also remembered his mother's dramatic reading aloud of the Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit stories, illustrated by A. B. Frost, Sr. She captivated her children by speaking in a soft, authentic dialect while pantomiming the characters with flourishing touches. Eulogized as a woman of "culture," Susan Daugherty was considered "unusually brilliant and intellectual" by those who knew her. [6]

Despite their modest income, the Daughertys filled the parlor shelves of their Washington home at 1255 Twenty-Third Street North West, at the intersection of N Street, with the works of Shakespeare, Prescott, Thackeray, Dickens, Poe, and Spencer, as well as several large volumes illustrated by Gustave Doré. William Cullen Bryant's A Library of Poetry and Song, an anthology of classic poetry, became the family's favorite book, digested "until [they] knew most of it by heart."[7] During these evening readings, Daugherty drew incessantly from his imagination, illustrations to the poems and stories. (Fig.2) Both parents recognized their son's precocious talent and equally encouraged its development.

In 1903, Daugherty enrolled in an evening "Antique Class" at the Corcoran Gallery's Free School of Art. [8] There, he received elementary training by copying sculptures in pencil and charcoal from the gallery's extensive collection of plaster casts. The drawing instructor, Eliphalet F. Andrews (1835-?), made an indelible impression upon Daugherty, not least of all for his forceful personality and unusual habit of appearing at class wearing a corduroy riding suite, complete with leather boots and crop. [9]

Andrews corrected his students' drawings while offering a bewildering critique, much of which, Daugherty claimed, was barely understood by those who received it. His frequent, but perplexing remarks, "when you see a head hit it" and "the shape of the shadows is the life of the drawing," nonetheless inspired students such as Daugherty, who discovered "something so magnificently and widely affirmative about [Andrews's] counsel that it fortified [him] for a hazardous and unknown future in the arts." [10] In May, at the end of the term, Daugherty received the school's honorable mention certificate. [11]

Daugherty's youthful enthusiasm for drawing is described in a diary covering the months from January to April of 1903. He practiced drawing diligently, preferring to make illustrations for the Central High School newspaper to studying Greek, Latin, and geometry, all three required subjects, which he abhorred. His meticulous chronicle of daily activities presents a young man who avidly read books and newspapers, participated on the high school's debating team, attended dancing school and exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery, but loved to draw above all else. He was a bit of a jokester with friends, enjoying acts of puerile foolery after school. Of perhaps equal interest is the insight the diary gives into Daugherty's devoutly religious nature. He seldom failed to register his enjoyment attending Bible class each Sunday morning. [12]

Daugherty continued art studies during the summer of 1903 at the Darby School of Painting run by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) and Hugh H. Breckenridge (1870-1937), both professors at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as well as Academy graduates. Established in 1899 in Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania, at the height of America's enthusiasm for summer art schools situated within idyllic settings, the Darby School earned a reputation as "an annual Mecca for earnest students of modern landscape." [13] Darby students were described as "color-bearers pursu[ing] the fleeting shade and shadow, and in chrome yellow, pink and green transfix[ing] the landscape with unerring brush." A newspaper illustration conveys something of the contemporary attitude towards plein air painting as a frivolous summer activity by caricaturing Darby students fumbling about the countryside laden with palettes, canvases, and easels, and presenting their work to bovine critics for approval. [14]

Anshutz had studied at the Academy as Thomas Eakins's protegé from 1879 to 1882, and succeeded him as the anatomy instructor upon Eakins's forced resignation in 1886. Despite his own rigorous figural work, Anshutz was open to modern tendencies in art. He adopted a liberal style of teaching that encouraged students to discover their individual potential rather than meet his (or his mentor's) exacting standards of representation. [15]

Breckenridge had studied at the Academy from 1887 to 1892, and taught there continuously from 1894 until his death forty-three years later. Some contemporary critics referred to his impressionistic style as "unconventional" and" daringly modern," and considered his high-keyed landscapes "apart and afar from human experience." [16]

At Darby, just as at the Academy, Anshutz and Breckenridge encouraged individuality and self-reliance. Their theory of landscape painting advocated executing rapidly sketched compositions out of doors that were completed later in the studio. There, the original, distinct impression captured earlier could be fully developed without nature's bothersome fluctuations in light.[17]

Breckenridge bolstered Daugherty's ambition to become an artist, if not an illustrator. His praise for his ability appears in a letter written to Daugherty's father in September 1903:

It has been on my mind ever since your son left Fort Washington, to write you in regard to his work with us. It is a great pleasure to do this, especially as I am able to speak in a very complimentary way of him. That he was unusually quick to grasp new ideas and the principles of our work, you doubtless expected -- and he was not disappointing in this matter. He took hold of the work with enthusiasm and his progress was all that I could ask for -- indeed, very marked. I think he would make a painter, but if he has himself to look out for, illustration will be a more certain branch of the work for him -- and in that line, also, he has my very best wishes. He will be a credit to you.[18]

Breckenridge's assessment of Daugherty's talent must have validated the Daughertys' belief in their son's aptitude for illustration. Such a letter of commendation surely helped lessen their concern for their son's future ambition to become an artist as well.

After summer at Darby, Daugherty returned to Central High School in Washington for his senior year. While he worried continually about passing Greek and math, his first published illustration, a pen-and-ink drawing for Treasure Island, appeared in the March 1904 issue of The Sketch Book, a student-produced periodical devoted to publishing student work. [19]

Treasure Island is the work of a novice; the figures are somewhat stiff and their facial features undeveloped. The drawing bears a strong affinity to the style of Howard Pyle, one of the founders of America's "Golden Age of Illustration" in the 1880s. Many young illustrators, Daugherty among them, had been inspired by his illustrations as children and emulated his manner of selecting the most dramatic moment from the text to capture the readers' attention, as well as those of the art editors. [20]

Daugherty's early talent as a draftsman is unequivocally evident in a sketchbook with drawings of Washington's Rock Creek Park from August 1904. A small portrait study of his father in a straw boater appears on one sheet. (Fig. 3)

The drawing, although quickly rendered, is remarkable for its naturalism and sense of character. [21] Other drawings similarly reveal his dexterous hand and extraordinary ability to transpose instantaneous gestures and expressions onto paper. A landscape sketch, loosely drawn, suggests the freedom and spontaneity characteristic of the Darby method.[21] (Fig. 4 )

After graduation from high school, Daugherty entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for professional training in illustration. In the 1890s, the Pennsylvania Academy, like many other American art schools, recognized (albeit somewhat reluctantly in its case) an obligation to provide students with opportunities for gainful employment and thus gradually loosened the "art for arts' sake" attitude that had produced scores of painters incapable of sustaining a livelihood within the profession. In an effort to attract more students, art schools expanded their curriculum to offer practical training courses in fields such as illustration. The Academy did not institutionalize a course in illustration until Henry McCarter (1864-1942), an Academy graduate, became the first instructor in 1900.[22]

McCarter's dominant presence at the Academy influenced many artists, such as Arthur B. Carles, Charles Demuth, and Charles Sheeler, who became modernists. McCarter had witnessed postimpressionism first-hand during an extended trip abroad in the late 1880s. During a second trip to Europe, he met many of the celebrated French artists, such as Puvis de Chavannes with whom he studied, and Van Gogh, Pissarro, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. McCarter's estimable reputation as a successful illustrator in New York preceded his arrival at the Academy. Although, like Breckenridge and Anshutz, McCarter's teaching was considered progressive, he placed primary emphasis upon draftsmanship: "All my students first are as ever academic -- I require that. Then we open the window and get it all off our chests and cut corners after the best new learning in art."[23]

Daugherty attended McCarter's class. He referred to him as "the master" and wrote in a notebook what he learned from him:

Never to make a decisive stroke in the development of an illustration, and to leave all parts with a future is the theory of the master. Slow evolution is his method in producing his works. He considers his composition in all its phases until it becomes invulnerable. First of all "to summit to the text" is his motto. [24]

Daugherty also studied at the Academy with the renowned American impressionist, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), who commuted to Philadelphia from New York (where he ran his own school), for his weekly class. Daugherty described Chase's appearance and manner of teaching in his introduction to Walt Whitman's America, a book of Whitman's poetry and excerpts from his writings, selected and illustrated by Daugherty in 1964. It is a lively, dramatic account, perhaps written with hyperbole to emphasize the impression Chase made as a larger-than-life, romantic figure:

He posed for a few minutes before making a series of rushes upon the canvas, retiring from each attack with dramatic posturing. During the whole process he emitted through his mustaches a hissing sound that somehow gave a mysterious solemnity and importance to the scene. In less than an hour, with marvelous deftness, he had brushed in a completely realized portrait. It was so dazzling a performance that we were left breathless and subdued. Afterward he told anecdotes of his association with James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent.[25]

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Daugherty began classes at the Academy. His autobiographical notes are cryptic, "the awful boredom of high school over -- to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts -- a short winter of study and enormous enthusiasm...."[26] In 1972, he reported six months of study at the Academy on the Montclair Art Museum's artist questionnaire. [27] Yet other sources cite a full year of study. The Academy's scrap books contain newspaper clippings, which confirm his presence at the school at least during the winter term of 1905. That spring, he won the instructors' prize of $25, awarded by vote from the students for the best group of compositions based upon subjects given during the current season.[27]

At the Academy, Daugherty would have met and in some cases established casual long-term friendships with several students, who later became acclaimed artists: Arthur B. Carles (recipient of the Academy's prestigious Cresson Short Term Scholarship in 1905), Hunt Diederich, Daniel Garber (who won the more prestigious Cresson Long Term Scholarship that year), Ethel Reed, Morton Schamberg, and Charles Sheeler. Another classmate, Ralph Boyer (recipient of a Cresson Scholarship in 1906), became an especially close, life-long friend. In fact, Boyer's decision to leave New York City to settle in Westport, Connecticut, apparently influenced Daugherty's subsequent decision to leave the city for Westport's neighboring town, Weston, in 1923.[28]



In the spring of 1905, Daugherty's father became the London agent for the Department of Agriculture. Daugherty joined his family in England that summer at the close of the Academy's term. He sailed aboard the freighter, Westernland, accompanied by his classmate, Hunt Diederich. During his two years abroad, Daugherty lived with his family at 42 St. Marks Road in North Kensington, studied at the London School of Art, and traveled within England and to the Continent, visiting Amsterdam, the Hague, Brussels, Paris, Florence, Venice, and Rome "under the spell of Rubens." [29]

The artist's European sketchbooks, although largely undated and utilized intermittently, offer a digest of his visual itinerary throughout England and Europe.

Sketches executed shortly after his arrival in London reflect his admiration for the American expatriate artist, James McNeill Whistler. The Thames Set, one of Whistler's revered prints series, might have been on Daugherty's mind as he first explored the city.[30] In autobiographical notes, he writes of his pleasure in walking along the Thames embankment where "Whistler, Beardsley, Turner and Carlyle had recently walked." [31] Whistler's influence upon Daugherty is most evident in his choice of subject: docks, ships, the waterfront, architecture, bridges, and city street life. Numerous pages are devoted to horses in rigging and crowds at outdoor markets and parades, while other, more polished sketches contain multiple figures situated in cafés. (Fig.5)

Daugherty also made sketches during a trip to Ascot in late June 1905 to see the annual horse races. There, the paddock area, splendidly dressed British couples, and the horses captured his attention. Months later, he found the suits of medieval armor on display at the Tower of London fascinating, making several intricate drawings of them, complete with notations about color. Several sketches record trips to the British Museum to copy works of art. His autobiographical notes mention his excitement upon examining the museum's print and drawing collections, where he studied the works of Michelangelo, Dürer, and Rembrandt. [32]

Daugherty made assiduous studies of paintings by Rubens, Tiepolo, and other Old Masters at the Louvre during a trip to Paris in 1906. Several pages in the Paris sketchbook are also devoted to a life-drawing session at the Atelier Colarossi, a large, no-frills studio without entrance requirements that provided art students with cheap access to models.[33]

On occasion, Daugherty used a Winsor & Newton sketchbook, with "tinted crayon" paper to make more finished pencil drawings of familiar sites. One such drawing is the Whistlerian, Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, ca. 1906.[34] (Fig.6)

An elaborate and complex work, the scene fills the entire sheet with a diagonal view of the bridge drawn from a low vantage point, looking slightly upwards at the undercarriage of built-in structures along and across it to the other side of the Arno. Here, Daugherty plays with subtle shifts between light and shadow and the reflection of light off water and stone. The delicacy of the line and small touches of color are those of a remarkably assured artist, confident in his ability to handle a challenging composition.

Daugherty's written notes from his classes with the Royal Academician, Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867 -1956), at the London Art School (1905-07), are especially revealing and pertinent to his artistic development. (Fig. 7)

Daugherty called Brangwyn "my god of painting," and referred to him, as did all Brangwyn students, as "the Boss."[35] A largely self-taught painter, Brangwyn earned an international reputation by securing grand commissions for large-scale decorative projects. As a young man, he apprenticed at Morris & Co. from 1882 to 1884, and worked for Morris intermittently thereafter. Brangwyn developed a proficiency in design and ornamentation. In the late 1890s, Sigfried Bing, the extraordinary entrepreneur of French Art Nouveau, employed him to decorate the façade of his Paris shop in the Rue de Provence.[36] In 1905, the year Daugherty began studying with him, he had just completed decorating and furnishing the British exhibition at the Venice Biennial. In the early 1930s, Brangwyn, along with José María Sert and Diego Rivera, received the prestigious commissions to paint the lobby murals of the RCA building in New York City's Rockefeller Center. [37] During a long, prolific career, Brangwyn produced not only easel and mural painting, but prints, as well as designs for posters, furniture, rugs, tapestries, and stained glass.

Brangwyn approached mural painting as an applied art with the perspective of a craftsman and the sensibility of a decorative artist. He produced richly-colored murals mostly of historical, allegorical, and medieval romantic subjects, which contemporary critics likened to his designs for stained glass and tapestries. His compositions, always vigorously painted, typically displayed numerous large-scale figures, garbed in yards of flowing drapery, and located in the foreground where they appeared crowded tightly together. His murals were assertive, vying for attention with, and more often than not overwhelming, their architectural setting. By the turn of the century, he had become one of England's most eminent artists. His fame attracted a mixture of British and American students to his school, located in a large multistudio building in South Kensington.

On 20 October 1905, Daugherty wrote in his notebook that he was beginning to understand Brangwyn's success, and by contrast, the failure of other artists because of their inability to "clinch with the vital questions... [they] haven't the courage and intelligence to achieve them. 'It is work!' as the Boss says. Hard, enterprising, intelligent work for the fun and glory of doing it."[38] Brangwyn taught painting by asking students to imagine, then imitate, an Old Master's brushstroke, but to make the subject their own. He urged students to "swing" their brushes around with "rich, fat, juicy gobs of paint." Daugherty imagined Rubens, whom he considered the greatest artist that ever lived. The Boss admonished Daugherty to "see the greys in the tones and not get things so hot and baked. I should I think control the siennas and vermilion more in mixing up my tones, and get the dam mud out of my color!" [39]

Brangwyn's strong work ethic also made an impression upon Daugherty. In the same notebook, he wrote:

Training! Training! Training! In the thoroughness of it lies your salvation and training out of school is better than training in school....Draw! Draw! Draw like hell! Scrutinize and study every good drawing that you see for in it is the key to salvation -- to Paradise... .And always keep arranging things, if it's a portrait or a drawing of a chair, always arrange it and after a while you will get used to filling spaces.[40]

Later in the notebook, Daugherty condensed Brangwyn's wisdom into an essay, giving it the rudimentary title, "The Straight Gip from Brangwyn to Daugherty, being notes on a heart to heart talk from The Boss." Daugherty wrote that for Brangwyn, "cleverness [in illustration] is fatal," drawings must be done sincerely and carefully, but never hastily. Brangwyn also urged students to get their work shown in exhibitions and not to be become discouraged by rejection:

Work is the thing send to this exhibition and that and bye and by you will become known....It's work that does it. get out and put your stuff before the public. It may not be pleasant at first but it will count....The thing in America now is decoration, you go for that. You can't do decoration until you are well known, so the thing is to paint stuff and put it in the exhibitions. Everywhere, until you are known then you will get a commission. (this is what he himself has done largely, I think.). [41]

Daugherty responded to Brangwyn's encouragement and guidance. Throughout his later work as a muralist, he executed multiple studies showing innumerable variations of a particular theme. In these preliminary drawings, Daugherty constantly shifted the figures, transposed them, added new ones and subtracted others, allowing his quick, dexterous draftsmanship to compose the pictorial space as one would a jigsaw puzzle.

When Daugherty began classes at the London School of Art, Brangwyn had been engaged for at least a year on a major commission to decorate the cavernous banquet hall for London's famous pelt company, Skinners'. He finished the mammoth project in 1909, completing eleven panels representing momentous episodes in Skinners' history, all topics chosen by the company to reinforce its cardinal importance to the British Empire. At the time when Daugherty visited the work in October 1905, Brangwyn had finished and installed three of the eleven panels. Brangwyn's choice of a high pitch of color for the decorative scheme surprised Daugherty, unexpected - -in his judgment -- for a well-lit room with light oak wainscoting. He drew a diagram of the room in his notes and wrote in great detail how Brangwyn worked within the architectural setting.[42] Daugherty's first impression was astonishment; "the sensuous color splotches and the effect of mass strikes one with immediate and irresistible force and splendor." Daugherty took copious notes on Brangwyn's use of color, describing the scheme as "sumptuous blazing reds and subdued but forceful yellow playing against the cooler tones blend in glorious harmony with the warm tone of oak." Brangwyn painted one panel, The Departure of Sir James Lancaster for the East Indies, with such startling contrasts that they overwhelmed the subject and thus in Daugherty's opinion, "as historical pictures they have no significance whatever, you cannot tell what [the figures] are doing much less why."

Daugherty's exposure to and seemingly brief interest in Art Nouveau most likely came through Brangwyn, as pages of his sketchbook, ca. 1906-07, contain designs for bookplates, decorative alphabet letters, and illustrations, with the linear, swirling, and rhythmic arabesques characteristic of the style. A page of sinister images for bookplates, inscribed with the names of Daugherty and his friend, Edward Trumbull, reveals a playful interest in the style's decadent tendencies.[43] (Fig.8)

In 1954, Daugherty stated, "Learned nothing except frustration from brief contacts with Chase and Brangwyn." [44] Later, in the early 1970s, Daugherty described his study with Brangwyn as "paralyzing" and an obstacle to the modern movements then forming in Paris.[45] These remarks seems slightly disingenuous, but given the distance of nearly sixty years, they are not unexpected. The seeds of Daugherty's disillusionment with academic training, especially regarding illustration, are evident as early as 1935. Writing to Don Freeman at the Art Students League, Daugherty harshly criticized the teaching of illustration in the various schools and lamented what the Hearst epoch had done to lower the caliber of magazine illustration. In Daugherty's opinion, the "illustrative photograph [was] rapidly superseding the photographic illustration. And the art can only take its place as a vital expression of a new impulse toward contemporary life thru a more robust interpretation, thru the emotions, thru Humor, satire and dramatic feeling." [46] He concluded by noting how essential it was for students to make a "systematic analysis of the great works of art and the best of the contemporary work must be studied and understood." By 1972, Daugherty's objection to academic training provoked the reproach, "I never learned a damn thing in art schools or from teachers, one learns from artists not nature or schools."[47]

Brangwyn was a pivotal influence upon Daugherty in many respects. Along with the significance of his teaching method and copious advice, his prestigious commission for Skinners' Hall provided Daugherty with his first opportunity to observe the execution of an excessively large and complex decorative scheme within a preexisting architectural setting. Many of Daugherty's mural compositions are similar to those of Brangwyn, especially in the massing of large-scale figures in the foreground against a distant scene in the background. Interestingly, Daugherty's murals were sometimes criticized for being overwrought with too many figures rhythmically arranged, the same fault he had found in some of Brangwyn's work.

Daugherty's graphic skills improved considerably during his two years abroad. A small pencil study of his father reading a journal completed during his last year in London provides an example of Daugherty's development as a graphic artist. (Fig.9)

It is richly drawn with extensive linear activity on the surface, yet the face is carefully delineated through delicate shifts in tone. He masterfully modulates the different textures of hair, flesh, and fabric. More important is his ability to apprehend an ethereal moment, a transitory condition when total absorption in reading causes a person utterly to withdraw from the exterior world and into an interior one.

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