Literature: British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920-1960,
Sansom & Co, 2013, pp.218-231
Brangwyn's celebrated murals for the Rockefeller Center adorn the facade of the Comcast building, situated at the heart of the center at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
The murals decorate the main atrium around the entrance to the lifts.
In 1932, Brangwyn was commissioned by J. D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960) to produce four large murals for the RCA building, the centrepiece of the Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, New York. These are still in situ in the entrance hall, decorating the area of the south corridor elevator shafts, each measuring 17 x 25ft. J. D. Rockefeller Jr. had originally approached Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Henri Matisse (1869–1964), but both artists turned the commission down. Brangwyn, Josep Maria Sert i Badia (1874–1945) and Diego Rivera (1886–1957) were subsequently appointed to carry out the scheme. The three artists were briefed to work on canvas, (of which no more than 75% was to be covered), to paint en grisaille and to include some lettering in their designs. The broad subject matter of the murals was 'New Frontiers', encompassing aspects of a modern society, including science, labor, education, travel, finance and spirituality. Brangwyn was assigned four themes expressing man's search for eternal truth: Man Laboring; Man the Creator; Man the Master; Man’s Ultimate Destiny.
In May 1933, the murals made headline news when a public dispute arose between Rockefeller and Rivera; Rivera had included a portrait of Lenin on one of his canvases, and it was subsequently destroyed. In September 1933, Brangwyn also faced controversy when objections were made to his inclusion of Christ in a scene representing the Sermon on the Mount. To solve the dispute, Brangwyn discreetly reversed his figure – as seen in the image below. The irony that Christ had turned his back on Rockefeller was not lost on some observers.
These two full-size studies are likely to have been made by Brangwyn in order to explore the formal and technical dimensions of his design. Finding his studio in Ditchling too small to accommodate the murals, Brangwyn was granted permission to use one of the rooms in the Brighton Pavillion to carry out his work. He never saw his paintings in situ.
Brangwyn's Rockefeller murals are similar in spirit to many of the works produced for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) scheme. Brangwyn’s murals also bare comparison to the Soviet realist aesthetic of the period, in which workingmen and women were celebrated in patriotic images. Brangwyn later gave these studies to William de Belleroche, the son of his close friend Count Albert de Belleroche (1864-1944), the painter and lithographer.
The model for the kneeling nude was Joy Sinden, sister of the actor Donald Sinden; both Donald and Joy lived in Ditchling and posed for Brangwyn.
Brangwyn's Rockefeller murals bear comparison with those of the celebrated WPA scheme which during the 1930's resulted in more than 100,000 paintings and murals in municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals in all of the 48 states. The government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression, in which he sought to put as many unemployed Americans back to work as possible and to buoy morale of the citizens. Some of the 20th century's greatest visual artists were employed by the FAP, including Thomas Hart Benton and Stuart Davis along with many nascent Abstract Expressionists.
Thomas Hart Benton, “Instruments of Power from America Today” (1930–31), WPA Mural cycle consisting of ten panels, (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)
We are grateful to Dr Libby Horner for assistance. This study will appear as M1110 in her forthcoming catalogue raisonne.