Peters Unveils His Masterpiece
By Richard H. Love
Richard H. Love is art historian, educator, and artist, and the author of
“Carl W. Peters: American Scene Painter from Rochester to Rockport”,
published by University of Rochester Press, 1999.
This excerpt is from Chapter 84, “Fairport’s Agrarian Roots”
Fairport's Agrarian Roots
Having spent countless hours of research, figure studies, compositional trials and errors, Peters installed his WPA/FAP mural in the Fairport Public Library, on 7 November 1938, above the entrance to the reference room.
The canvas, signed and dated "Carl W. Peters, 1938," is approximately 4½ by 18 feet (Fig. 84-3). This dynamic agrarian image is one of his most important works, clearly a masterpiece of American regionalist mural painting. Furthermore, the subject matter its well within the parameters set by the art fashion of the times, by the AAC and WPA/FAP, for these are farmers, rural laborers.
Peters incorporated twenty-one figures into his composition, some large and dominating the foreground, others small and distant. Most of the foreground figures are physically active and some, the men in the lower register of the image, are involved in hard farm labor. To arrange the plastic elements of his composition, Peters carefully "positioned" these figures to arrive at his intended image. Their contrasting proletarian roles were established when he made his preparatory watercolor. Accordingly, in comparing the small preparatory watercolor with the large finished mural, we see that, aside from certain compositional changes, Peters was generally satisfied with the role he had established for each figure, changing the placement of each one only slightly here and there.
Almost as if he were a stage director, Peters positioned his actors in a frieze-like arrangement (the mural is actually a frieze) to create a kind of Giottoesque continuum narrative by which his iconography could be recognized. He slightly altered the placement and function of these main figures as he prepared the final mural cartoon.
A comparison of the finished mural with the preparatory watercolor sketch reveals a few slight changes in the foreground composition, and he changed the background significantly in the final version. In the preparatory water¬color, the whole left background is devoted to stylized, rolling hills; a farmer and his mule team and a well-tended farm, somewhat Wood-like in its severe simplicity—while in the final version, the farmer and his white mule have been brought forward, providing a closer view of their rears. Moving into the distance away from the viewer, man and beast are struggling to make Geneseeland productive. The farm in the distance has been moved to the left.
The greatest difference between the preparatory watercolor and the finished mural has to do with the Erie Canal and the depiction of Fairport in the background. In the sketch, the Canal is tipped upward in a cubistic manner and the factory-like buildings appear to be cubes or large boxes, ideal presentments of the village's factories set in contrast with the organic agrarian foreground.
In the finished mural, the Canal is no longer tipped upward, but straightened and employed as a scenic divider that runs parallel to the picture plane. The severe factories have been replaced by identifiable nineteenth-century structures, an arched bridge over the canal and barges, one docked and being loaded with agricultural products in the foreground, the other being towed on the canal.
All in all, the finished work is a far more complex, albeit harmonious pictorial design than the preparatory' sketch which Peters gave the committee. The sketch was a fine representation of his idea, but gave only an inkling of the masterpiece to come.
All of the figures in the finished mural were carefully selected, studied, and sketched from live models. The identity of these models is unknown, but his usual procedure was to request local persons to pose for him; perhaps these men and women were neighboring farmers or simply local laboring-class persons (there were many from whom he might choose) whose faces and body types he wanted to portray. Furthermore, he probably sketched one or more of his family, perhaps a brother and sister or even his wife and youngest child.
The composition consists of three basic groups, the center depicting a farmer and his wife, the left made up of two farm laborers, a mother and child, and the group at the right showing one farm laborer and two women. The largest and most prominent group is the centrally placed farmer and his wife, who are positioned closest to the viewer. The preparatory sketch of this group complete with two horses and a lamb, indicate a slight change of pose for the farmer's head and arms, but in effect, the iconography is simple and direct, featuring a stern-faced farmer in overalls, not tall, but muscular, firmly grasping the handle of a rake and standing protectively over his wife (a partner in agrarian life). The impressive figures create a strong and stable pyramidal form in the exact center of the composition.
Appropriately, the scene takes place in a field being harvested: the female figure is seated in a wheat field near wheat shocks, while the male figure stands. Symbolically, they are in the center of the agrarian environment that is harvesting what they planted and cultivated. Together they take up nearly' the whole height of the pictorial space.
This pyramidal figure group is positioned directly in front of two horses: one white, one black, possibly racially symbolic of the nation's proletariat. These "beasts of burden" accept their roles quietly, while pictorially they form an unstable, inverted triangle, indicative of the plight of the farm worker (the hired hand) and providing a strong contrast to the farmer and his wife who have struggled against all odds to save the family farm.
These are serious, hard-working, determined Americans who might have asked, as did the article in the 1936 Partisan Review and Anvil, "What is Americanism?" but who like Peters, had turned their backs on Marxism to stick with tradition. Like Grant Wood, Peters the muralist was one of them, the hardy rural stock of western New York who had worked diligently to preserve their northern agrarian tradition in the same way Ransom, Tate, and the Fugitive-Agrarian-New Critics battled to save theirs in the South.
During the past few years Peters had spent a good deal of time researching material for his mural commissions and creating compositions that would convey the intended iconography. Usually the general message to be put forth was indicated by the commissioning patron, as it had been with the Genesee Valley Trust or the Fairport Library board, the official sanctioning body' acting on behalf of the WPA/FAP for western New York.
Photo provided by Bill Poray.
We have seen that Peters was exceedingly capable of composing complex iconographies in his murals and his Fairport mural exceeded all previous ones. At first glance, Peters' message is simple, direct, and clear: it is symbolic of Fairport's history and tradition. However, upon careful analysis, it appears that he intended a secondary religious iconography, which underscored the whole Fairport narrative. Strongly Judaeo-Christian in content, such iconography would have been central to Peters' attitude about nature and life in America since he was convinced that there was some spiritual essence in all that he perceived.
Peters had never made an in-depth study of theological issues, and he was no regular churchgoer, but his was a deep, abiding if simple Christianity, similar to that which he observed in his agrarian environment. Peters was born at the end of the era when the American landscape was still considered to serve as 'a holy text" available for "interpretation" by "artists," God's special "priests of the natural church." Indeed, this unique place on earth had been seen for decades as the New Jerusalem and there was no more honor¬able role for a painter to pursue than to "declare the glory of God" through his imagery, for there were both "the letter and the spirit in the true Scripture of Art."
And as the wilderness was turned into the Garden of the World, one could witness the bountiful harvest from the efforts of Christ's true la¬borers, for as Emerson reminded Americans: "We can never see Christianity from the catechism --from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds, we possibly may."
Geneseeland was a significant portion of God's garden and Peters accepted the lingering tradition of serving as a talented interpreter of nature's holy text. He was an heir to the Emersonian-Hudson River School tradition who saw nature as a mirror of divine majesty.
Peters was exceedingly successful in his calling, for many observers perceived "spiritual" qualities in his landscapes. Therefore, one may assume that if Peters was able to evoke a sense of the sublime, evidence of a Christianized mark of the Deity resident in nature," he certainly would have been interested in expanding his imagery to include symbols by which a sense of Christ's role in the New Jerusalem was more easily recognized.
Geneseeland was mostly Protestant and Peters was not Catholic (Catholicism being the usual source for traditional iconography), but his mother remained true to Catholicism all her life. It is quite possible that she owned various illustrated apocryphal writings, which Peters looked at and studied.
As an artist, he was familiar with traditional iconography from attending art exhibitions in Rochester and whenever he traveled. Even without the experience of formal courses in art history, Peters would have examined old master paintings with religious subject matter and in his spare time he read art journals.
Furthermore, Peters had been struggling not only with the Depression and its economic shortages, but also with a personal crisis in his life with Christine, all of which probably inspired him to pray, to approach his God with new conviction, as he sought solutions to his problems. Therefore, because Peters' most effective method of personal expression was not verbal or written, but painted, it is possible that he incorporated an underlying, veiled symbology in his mural, which for him at this time in his career, was as significant as the obvious secular message.
Peters' central figure group seems to indicate this disguised Christian iconography. If so, Peters, as in his early mural in Genesee Valley Trust Company Building, created a masterful sequence of Holy Family images in a twentieth-century agrarian setting. Unlike Giotto, whose pictorial narrative of the Messiah is straightforward and filled with anguish, Peters' is camouflaged and illustrative of Christ's brief ministry prior to His crucifixion and resurrection.
Perhaps in this mural masterpiece, Peters extended the tradition that deTocqueville had observed when he wrote, "There is no country in the world in which the Christian religion retains a greater hold over the souls of men, than in America. It is not unlikely that Peters would attempt a mural that could be interpreted on more than one iconographic level.
He had already done this in his first mural, as we have seen in chapter 65. Here, in the Genesee Valley Trust Company Building's banking room, a nineteenth-century Holy Family enters from the lower right corner on a packet, floating down the Genesee. In the budding traditionalist climate of the 1930s, the image of a woman holding an infant, in the care of her husband, all of whom are in transit, would easily have evoked the New Testament parallel theme. Furthermore, we saw how John Steuart Curry depicted a similar pioneer family in a covered wagon which he titled Ne'er-Do-Well (Flight into Egypt), dated 1929. Peters did not think it had to be spelled out—he was never that obvious. Our comparisons with works by Ludovico Carracci and Murillo, however, make the Flight into Egypt parallel even more plausible.
Obeying an angel who told him in a dream that his betrothed Mary would bear a son (Jesus) who would "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21). Joseph took the Virgin Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:4-6) where they anticipated the birth of the Savior.
Luke relates far less about the journey to Bethlehem than the Proto-evangelism of James, which states that Joseph guided the way leading an ass upon which Mary rode. According to Gertrud Schiller, "no pictorial tradition grew out of the motif of the Journey to Bethlehem, which, with a few exceptions, was confined to the great Byzantine cycles -or cycles influenced by eastern iconography." However, by the early twentieth century, numerous examples of imagery illustrating the story had been painted, some of which were from the brushes of many well-known American painters.
Peters may also have seen the important biblical series by one of Rochester's favorite sons, Frank Vincent DuMond, who actually researched his project throughout the Holy Land to illustrate "The Literary Landmarks of Jerusalem" by Lawrence Hutton, for Harper's Magazine in 1895.
Besides Curry's Flight into Egypt, a great number of Christian themes were executed during the decades of American Scenism and regionalism. Conservative and specifically fundamentalist viewpoints had been on the rise since the Scopes Trial. First, traditional Christian subject matter became more frequent, in sharp contrast to the nihilism that characterizes our century's innovative philosophers.
Susanna and the Elders, the Prodigal Son, the Last Judgment, and the Lamentation are a few examples of this neo-Christian revival in painting. Far more popular were illustrations of contemporary religious practices, including revival meetings, modern-day baptisms (Curry's Baptism in Kansas), country preachers, Salvation Army workers, missionaries, and choir practice.
Another interesting phenomenon was the visualization of certain hymns, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Muralists of the 1930s were contracted by the government to execute religious themes. For example, the Emergency Work Bureau commissioned Mons Breidvik to paint a Giottoesque Ascension in 1933 in the Grace Episcopal Church (Ja¬maica, Queens, N.Y.).
Seymour Fogel painted Religious and Modern Music under the WPA/FAP in Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn while Peters was painting the mural in Fairport. Peters' colleagues, including Maurice Compris, did religious mural painting. Compris decorated Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Portuguese Catholic church in Gloucester. Ed¬ward Laning painted St. Illuminator for the Armenian Apostolic Church in New York City (1933-34).
Thus with ample preceding images to inspire him, Peters' many hours of quiet study in art books, observation of pictures in the Memorial Art Gallery, as well as his heightened research for other secular murals in recent years, had all paid off. In his "farmer and wife" central figure group, he presented a strongly personal and somewhat unorthodox 'American" interpretation of a brief glimpse of Joseph and Mary during their journey to Bethlehem, where in a manger the Nativity would take place.
In the center of the frieze, appearing to be much older than his wife, Joseph stands behind protectively as she rests, in her early pregnant state, having ridden one of the horses behind them. Mary is appropriately positioned in front of Joseph, in whose muscular grasp the rake serves as both rod and staff, which would give her a sense of physical and spiritually symbolic comfort. Seated, Mary holds a jug (ewer) from which water freely flows, a well-known symbol of purity, especially in depictions of the Virgin Mary. The future mother of Christ Jesus rests in a field of wheat among wheat shocks –wheat is the grain symbolizing Christ, the "living bread which came down from heaven" and earth's (Geneseeland's) great bounty, as well as the bread of the Eucharist.
Evidently, their journey had just begun, for Peters did not present Mary "great with child.~ for the babe was vet to be born in Bethlehem. Nonetheless, His divine presence is accounted for in this central scene by the small white lamb, another well-known biblical symbol of Christ, the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei), an appellation that extends back to Old Testament typology of sacrifice and was continued in the New Testament. Here Peters carefully positioned the symbol of the future Messiah for whom John the Baptist, "crying in the wilderness [pre-garden Geneseeland]" made "straight the way of the Lord," for he saw "the Lamb of God" who would take away the "sin of the world" (John 1: 23, 29). Emphasizing the importance of this symbol in Christ, and drawing the viewers attention to it, the large white horse arches its neck downward as if to nuzzle the lamb (more clear in the presentation sketch), fully and gently recognizing its presence as John the Baptist did) while the larger black horse struggles onward, apparently oblivious of it.
At the far left of the composition we are confronted with the next scene in the life of Jesus, Peters' unorthodox interpretation of a moment in time just after the Nativity. Here we find three men (the Magi) working, their backs turned on Mary and the Christ child. One tall, powerfully built shirtless young man grips the handles of a single bottom plow pulled by the team of white and black horses; this laborer's furrow begins at the left as he resolutely goes about his arduous task in making the soil reads' for planting.
In the preparatory sketch for this group, Peters included a gunnysack, apparently filled with wheat-grain, but in the finished work this rounded form became a rock, the symbol for Saint Peter upon whom Jesus declared He would build His church. Several rocks are in this soil, one of which (the former sack of grain) served as the surface for Peters' signature'" Hunched over as he walks, the other straw-hatted farmer appears to be planting some kind of grain, probably wheat, which was plentiful and when harvested became the living bread. Yet, in due time, Jesus would tell his disciples that "the harvest [the multitudes] truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few."
To the left of the laborers is the unmuzzled, brownish-grey ox, the "pure beast," the Judeo-Christian symbol of patience and strength Working along¬side his human counterparts, this ox is not only another symbol of Jesus, the Messiah whose sacrifice was for mankind, but also a symbol "representing all who patiently bear their yoke while laboring in silence for the good of others. Accordingly, as they work together, the ox (Christ) and laborers (disciples) also symbolize the enduring American Puritan tradition of dutiful, Christian labor in converting not only souls, but nature's untamed and chaotic wilderness into God's abundant Garden of the World, and fulfilling the American agrarian dream.
Continuing this analysis of Peters' veiled religious iconography, we discover the rump of an ass (the white mule, being driven by the farmer with his back to the viewer), another animal frequently depicted with the ox, especially in Christian nativity scenes. Yoked to the law, the ox lowers its head in obedient servitude to God while the ass, burdened with sins of idolatry, now plows the earth; but we also know that such a beast (or the white horse) has also carried the Virgin Mary to the Nativity and later will carry Jesus the Christ into Jerusalem. The actual event of the Nativity has been completed, the incarnation of Christ has occurred. Standing nearby is the woman (a farmer's wife or Mary) and infant child (Jesus). Mary is dressed in a simple white dress (with blue tonalities), alluding to purity and innocence; her countenance seems pensive as she looks beyond the laboring men toward us, the viewers. The babe's mother is surely saddened by the knowledge that her son Jesus must eventually begin His sacrificial task. The Magi, the three laborers, both disciples and wise men who earlier followed a new star and visited the nativity to find the Christ child, achieved their goal—already having met Herod, they brought gifts and found and worshipped the king of the Jews, the Messiah. These three wise men were extremely humbled by their grand experience, at once spiritually rich, yet poor as common servants of the Lord, enlightened American farmers who have gone back to their daily labors of preparing the soil for the harvest.
At the far right of the composition we find the third and final scene, the harvest: one laborer, Jesus, the Son of man cultivating the good seeds (fol¬lowers) of Christ in Geneseeland in the constant task of creating a bountiful garden. Two muscular women, perhaps Mary and Martha, prepare the harvest, probably remembering the words of Jesus, "look up for the fields are white with harvest." One of these simply dressed women is shown emptying evidence of the bountiful harvest, a basket of red apples, into a farm wagon, no doubt a personal reflection of the many memories of Peters' sisters helping with the harvest in the family's large apple orchard. Peters' harvesters continue his underlying Christian message, for in this case, he may have alluded to John the Baptist's stern warning as he foretold the coming of the Messiah: "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Luke 3: 9). But these are God-fearing Christian women, who, like Mary and Martha, also cultivate their own souls, to be born again working diligently in the service of their God. These are His children who, having been "made free from sin [have] become servants to God," their "fruit into holiness, and the end everlasting life" (Rom. 6:22). These exemplary laboring women of Geneseeland have obviously brought forth good "fruit of the Spirit . . . love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness" (Gal. 5:22, Eph. 5:9).
Perhaps Jesus the Son of Man is the tall, muscular figure near Mary and Martha. He laboriously cultivates His garden of souls for He, unlike his followers, could distinguish between the tares and wheat. And for those of Geneseeland who wished to achieve eternal life by following in the footsteps of the Savior, Paul's words rang in their ears as they tilled, planted, cultivated and harvested: "Beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58).
Upon close examination, we see that this powerful figure is keeping a close eye on the woman at the right, probably Martha, whose influence probably led to the conversion of Mary Magdalene. Just behind these three figures we find a canal packer being loaded, another possible reference to the old legend of Martha, Mary Magdalene and Lazarus later sailing to Marseilles, France, where Martha converted the people of Aix-en-Provence. From slightly above, the Lamb of God looks down upon the endless toil of the three laborers, men in the middle ground, whose backs are arched from the weight of huge sacks that they load on the boat. Their task is arduous but honorable as they reap the bountiful harvest in duty to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Continuing this line of iconographic analysis, one might conclude that the Erie Canal, the once great waterway to the east, symbolizes the River Jordan running through the (Genesee) wilderness where John the Baptist preached and prepared the way for the Lord by telling the crowds to "bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:9).
Compositionally and symbolically, the blue waters of the Erie Canal (River Jordan) separate the pictorial proscenium, in which the narrative is depicted, from the secular background. Beyond the Canal (River Jordan) are two separate environments, rural on the left and village on the right, both obviously intended to show the contrast of genre activities in and around Fairport. Interestingly, for one to reach these areas, the viewer must make his or her way past the complex frieze that illustrates the life of Christ Jesus, then cross the Canal (as in baptism) to join the good (eternal) life there where a crowd of onlookers seem to beckon.
Ostensibly, this fascinating subject matter sends forth a clear secular narrative that eclipses the veiled religious iconography. However, we must keep in mind that the scene reveals Fairport's early settlement as a canal town established out of a strongly religious agrarian tradition in which the Protestant work ethic in the service of Christ was paramount in early life.
Perhaps Peters shared his secret iconography with some friend, but whether he did has no bearing on its quality. The execution of his mural is as stunning as the image itself. Employing an unusually high-key palette, Peters exploited his ubiquitous cloisonnisme technique of outlining most of his figures and forms - only as these mannered forms recede into the distance does he decrease the intensity of their outlines.
Brushwork is masterfully controlled and all evidence of previous expressive bravura has been eliminated in his sacrifice of form and narrative for clarity. But the mural has not suffered for lack of spontaneous brushwork in that he compensated fully with his powerful Michelangelesque mannerism. Drawings such as Fig. 84-5 show off the skills of this master draftsman.
We see from the Fairport mural that Peters' mastery of expressive lines lost nothing and gained a great deal during the years that he executed his outstanding drawings of soldiers in World War I. The highly stylized and simplified description of draperies, animals, foliage and other forms in his Fairport mural reveals not only artistic continuity and surety in execution, but growth in style, for here is powerful exaggeration of anatomical form not seen in earlier easel pictures or murals. Here is a marvelous balance of subject, style, and iconography that serves as one of America's greatest examples of mural regionalism. Peters was being paid little for his artistic genius, but he painted as though he were receiving a huge commission or driven by some energy perhaps the innermost spiritual kind that only he could know and we could perceive. His devotion to the task could not have been put to better use since the art was being installed in his own hometown. Moreover, the project was probably much needed therapy for the soothing of his own emotions during his difficult marital crisis that con¬fronted him at this time.
Upon its unveiling, the mural was praised as a composition successfully integrated into the library as far as design and color were concerned. It enhanced the cherry wood paneling, the room's color scheme, and even "the bright spots of the books" on the shelves below.
In addition to merely decorative aspects, the citizens applauded the mural for its precise narrative and above all, for its subject, which appears to be the town's early settlement and the building of the great embankment for the Erie Canal and the Canal itself at the Main Street crossing: 'The strong figures of the pioneer settlers, surrounded by the products of their farms... and the views of the great embankment, and of the little village with its busy canal landing in the background, show the important elements that combined to create Fairport.
One must conclude that Peters' mural stands as nothing short of a masterpiece, a work worthy of the indelible American spirit he infused into its making. In December in her weekly art column Amy Croughton devoted the entire space to announce that Peters had recently finished the Fairport library mural. She reported that he had "woven historic scenes of the town into an effective composition which, in design and color, seems an integral part of the building."
Pointing out Fairport's close ties with the Erie Canal, Croughton reminded readers that Peters' complex picture included a scene of canal locks "in the days of the horse-drawn barges," as well as the "old hotel," a local "landmark still standing."