Look up! A massive mural of galloping horses hangs above the postmaster’s door at our post office in La Grange, Texas. At nearby Smithville, Texas Rangers make an arrest in another huge painting . Not far away in Giddings, there’s artwork of three cowboys gathered around a rural mailbox.
What’s the story on these engaging, yet often overlooked vintage western works of art?
Back to the 1930s and “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 under the auspices of a phenomenal economic stimulus measure called the New Deal. U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted this far-reaching package of programs ˗ public work projects, reforms and regulations to pull the country out of a devastating economic collapse. Between 1933 and 1939, The New Deal’s relief, reform and recovery programs supported not only farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly, but also writers, photographers and artists. 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 that would 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 that creates an absorbing portal to the past.
“Horses” at La Grange
“The La Grange painting is so filled with life and movement that it takes my breath away.” 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 the Smithville’s painting has an interesting play of light emphasizing good and evil, which makes the law enforcement story even stronger. It’s not surprising that San Antonio, Texas, artist Minette Teichmueller chose to paint a law and order image. Miss Teichmueller was a native of La Grange, where her father, Hans Teichmueller, was elected Fayette County Judge from 1869 to 1870. He also served as the 22nd Texas Judicial District Judge from 1884 until he died in 1901.
Miss Teichmueller attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago in 1907 and 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 showing the importance of the mail’s arrival, as well as the close relationship of the cowboys.
“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. 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.
* * *
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!
* * *