You’ll have to look up if you want to see some amazing examples of Great Depression-era art in rural Texas! A massive mural of galloping horses hangs above the postmaster’s door at our post office in La Grange. At nearby Smithville, Texas Rangers make an arrest in another huge painting. Not far away in Giddings, there’s the artwork of three cowboys gathered around a rural mailbox.
What’s the story of these engaging, yet often overlooked vintage western works of art?
Back in the 1930s there was “The New Deal”
The three oil-on-canvas murals are vestiges of a fascinating footnote in U.S. history.
Professional American artists painted them during the Great Depression. The program was under the auspices of a phenomenal economic stimulus measure called the New Deal. U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the public work projects, reforms and regulations to pull the country out of a devastating economic collapse. The New Deal’s relief, reform and recovery programs provided to farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly. It also benefited writers, photographers and artists. (Click here for more info: New Deal)
Many artists competed for commissions awarded by the Section of Fine Arts of the Public Buildings Administration. Their mandate was to create art that portrayed everyday people going about their lives, historical events or wildlife. These creations were to be be permanently displayed in federal buildings like our local post offices.
The Central Texas murals at La Grange, Smithville and Giddings delight award-winning Texas artist Karen Vernon. She calls the paintings treasures, each depicting a different story, an absorbing portal to the past.
“Horses” at La Grange
“The La Grange painting is so filled with life and movement that it takes away my breath,” Karen says. “Turbulence and action fill the space. Does this compelling piece reflect life in La Grange at that time? What was going on? How was the community growing? This painting, unlike the other two quieter pieces, demands attention and action.”
It was painted by Tom E. Lewis, who has two works in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This California native, who studied architecture at the University of Southern California, began painting during the late 1920s.
“The Law – Texas Rangers” at Smithville
Karen observed that Smithville’s painting has an interesting play of light. It seems to emphasize good and evil, which makes the law enforcement story even stronger. It’s not surprising that Minette Teichmueller, a San Antonio, Texas, artist, chose to paint a law and order image. Miss Teichmueller was a native of La Grange. Her father, Hans Teichmueller, served as Fayette County Judge from 1869 to 1870. He also was elected 22nd Texas Judicial District Judge from 1884 until he died in 1901.
Miss Teichmueller attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago in 1907. She later studied with renowned Texas painter Hugo D. Pohl whom she later married. Mr. Pohl specialized in mural decoration, genre and historical subjects, so no doubt he influenced his wife’s art.
Born in 1872, she probably was one of the older artists in the 1930s New Deal art program. She also was one of the few women who participated.
“Cowboys Receiving the Mail” at Giddings
From Karen’s perspective, the Giddings painting reflects optimism and changing times. It tells of cowboys on horseback and high hopes for what arrives in the mail. She points to well-executed triangular composition with the close positioning of the figures. That indicates the importance of the mail’s arrival, as well as the cowboys’ close relationship.
“Are they brothers or friends? Are the new red boots for a Saturday night dance? Were they each hoping for a letter from afar? Their work and life may have been on the ranch, but the painting captured that the mail was something they looked forward to receiving.”
Texas native Otis Dozier painted the 4×12.5-foot Giddings mural.
Actually far more cotton farmers than cowboys lived near the town and the closest mountains were hundreds of miles away. However, when the artwork was installed in 1939, the postmaster and members of the community were well pleased with the beautiful image. After all, the anticipation of receiving personal mail was – and still is – a universal theme.
“Each of the murals is stylized with flat planes of color with an emphasis on the use of color and pattern reflective of the art nouveau movement that held a strong interest in stenciled patterns,” says Karen, who in addition to her creating her own art, is executive director of Arts for Rural Texas in Fayetteville, Texas. The non-profit’s mission is to enrich lives through the arts and art education. For more information, click on the following link: Arts for Rural Texas.
“The colors carry over in the typical muted, delicate colors of the nouveau period, a result of the use of vegetable dyes. Common colors were pastels, white, off-white, olive, mustard, sage, brown, lilac, gold and peacock blue, all seen in these wonderful paintings. Beautiful!” she says.
I agree with Karen. These works of art painted as part of a New Deal program reflect a time in our history.
For more information
Philip Parisi’s excellent book, “The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People,” provides an in-depth look at these works of art. In his preface, he explains that artists produced 106 pieces for 69 Texas post offices and federal buildings. Find it on Amazon.
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Readers, what’s your reaction to these historic vintage murals? Have you seen any New Deal works of art created during the Great Depression? If so, please tell us about them!
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These stories you gift us are so creative and imaginative. Thank you for your brilliant writing. I am always in awe of your writing.
Thanks, Jo Lynn. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing the murals and hearing about their background. For readers living nearby, it would be a nice road trip to see them in person during these days of social distancing.
How progressive of the New Deal to include work for artists and photographers! That would be a good idea to include right now in some form of stimulus package and to create new art for federal buildings!
Yes, it was progressive for the New Deal to include artists and photographers. It would be wonderful if aid like this was made available now. In addition to the welcome financial aid, the program demonstrated that the work of artists and photographers was important.
What an interesting story about New Deal public art in Central Texas Neither the former nor the current post office in Schulenburg has comparable murals, but I’ll bet there are examples elsewhere waiting to be catalogued. In addition to the WPA artists, sculptors and photographers of that era, there were also authors in the Federal Writers Project who brought history and culture to the printed page. Thank you for all your contributions.
Yes, Gus, there are many other murals still around, as far as I know. I’m wondering if they all date back to post offices built in the 1936-37 time frame? I’m hoping we hear from some readers who live in a community where more examples of New Deal art have survived. Thank you for your input!
Loved this! I always wondered about the mural in the LG Post office but never asked. Thank you so much for this info – Great job as always!
Thanks, Linda. Glad this post addressed your question!
Thanks Elaine. Another great article! Residents of LaGrange, Giddings and Smithville will be “looking up” on their next visit to their post offices. Great treasures!
Carol, so glad you enjoyed this story and, yes, I think we all might be looking up a little more closely. The artwork reflects a different time and period, another piece of our history.
Elaine, thanks for all this great info on the painters! The New Deal Art Registry, https://www.newdealartregistry.org/Home.html, will definitely want your full-width photo of the La Grange painting “Horses;” all it has right now is a detail showing the brown horse on the right, and the painting’s damage is not mentioned. Worse, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_post_office_murals lists the painting as “missing”(!), so you might want to straighten them out too. That site lists other cities with New Deal post office paintings, so maybe other readers of yours will want to investigate nearby ones.
Helen, thanks so much for these valuable links! I will follow up with each one. Did you ever visit the old federal courthouse in downtown Houston? I seem to recall a huge painting of a historical event that may have been part of the New Deal artistry.
Beautiful artwork at our local post offices. Love the rich stained wood doors And bulletin boards beneath the art scenes. Most of all I loved the very informative and interesting story. Makes me want to find this book. Thank you for your continued work including the Stolz story in the Fayette County Record.
Thanks, Gesine. So glad the stories and images resonated with you. It’s great fun to ‘rediscover’ something memorable in our own back yards!
I love the diversity of your stories–all well written and engaging. I was only aware of the mural in our La Grange post office. Buying those stamps reminded me to notice it more. Your story does too. Thank you. Martha
Martha, glad to hear that you do in fact “look up” and appreciate the vintage mural in the La Grange Post Office. For more than 80 years, it has overseen our postal transactions. That’s a significant length of time for a piece of art to hang in one location!
Thanks for sharing these stories and famous paintings with us, Elaine. I only knew about the one in La Grange, not about all the others! It is good that the Post offices are keeping them in a prominent space, so all can enjoy them. I will take a longer look next time I am
Perhaps when you look up to take a closer look at the vintage mural in the La Grange Post Office, the person behind you will be curious enough to follow your gaze! Thanks for writing, Barbara.