NORMAN ROCKWELL: Freedom of Speech, The Saturday Evening Post, c.1943

May 5, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 34 Norman Rockwell- Freedom of Speech  Worksheet Humanities Week 34 Norman Rockwell Freedom of Speech

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America was soon bustling to marshal its forces on the home front as well as abroad. Norman Rockwell, already well known as an illustrator for one of the country’s most popular magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, had created the affable, gangly character of Willie Gillis for the magazine’s cover, and Post readers eagerly followed Willie as he developed from boy to man during the tenure of his imaginary military service. Rockwell considered himself the heir of the great illustrators who left their mark during World War I, and, like them, he wanted to contribute something substantial to his country.

A critical component of the World War II war effort was the creation of visual images based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appeal to the four essential human freedoms he spoke about in
his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941—freedom of speech and expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom of worship. Yet, by the summer of 1942, two-thirds of Americans still knew nothing about the Four Freedoms, even though government agencies had disseminated photographs, prints, and even a textile design referring to them. It is unclear whether Rockwell or a member of the Office of
War Information suggested he take on the Four Freedoms.  What is uncontested is that his renditions were not only vital to the war effort, but have become enshrined in American culture.

Painting the Four Freedoms was important to Rockwell for more than patriotic reasons. He hoped one of them would become his statement as an artist. Rockwell had been born into
a world in which painters crossed easily from the commercial world to that of the gallery, as Winslow Homer had done.  By the 1940s, however, a division had emerged between the fine arts and the work for hire that Rockwell produced. The detailed, homespun images he employed to reach a mass audience were not appealing to an art community that now lionized intellectual and abstract works. But Rockwell knew his strengths did not lie in that direction: “Boys batting flies on vacant lots,” he explained in 1936, “little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrella in hand—all these things arouse feeling in me.”

Rockwell’s ability to capture something universal in the commonplace is behind the success of the Four Freedoms pictures. For Freedom of Speech, the first painting he completed, the artist attempted four different compositions in which a man dressed in work clothes, the community’s “Annual Report” folded in his pocket, stands to give his opinion at a New England town meeting. In this, the final version, Rockwell depicts him from slightly below eye level, encircled by his fellow townspeople and by us, the viewers, who take our place two benches in front of him. The timeless properties of this work are the result of Rockwell’s classical sense of composition: the speaker stands at the apex of a pyramid drawn by the upward glances of his neighbors. The warm, light tones of the speaker’s skin glow against the matte black chalkboard in the background, giving him a larger-than-life, heroic appearance. The work also exudes a sense of immediacy. A snapshot effect is achieved by the inclusion of fragmented forms at the painting’s borders: the partial head of the man in the lower left and the glimpse of two faces in the right and left back corners (the one on the left is Rockwell’s own). Rockwell’s eye for detail (he used ordinary people as models and had scores of photographs made before beginning to paint in order to remind him of things as small as a folded collar) gives each inch of the painting a sense of the accidental and familiar.

In 1943, the four canvases were published in The Saturday Evening Post before being sent on a nationwide tour called the “Four Freedoms War Bond Show.” More than a million people saw them in sixteen cities and over 133 million dollars in war bonds were sold. This painting—Rockwell felt it and Freedom to Worship were the best of the four—helped galvanize the nation to action during the war. Long after that conflict, its message
continues to resonate; time has revealed that the value of the Four Freedoms series lies not simply in the ideas it presented, but in Rockwell’s exceptional ability as an artist.

I have enjoyed having all of you in my class this year.  We have learned a lot and had fun as well.  I have observed that all of you have made real improvement in your writing skills. Great job!

Note to Parents:  Final grade recommendations were given to students at our last class.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Have a good summer! -Mrs. S

“And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” -James 3:18  NLT

“And the harvest of righteousness of conformity to God’s will in thought and deed is  sown in peace by those who work for and make peace in themselves and in others. That peace means to be in accorcord, agreement, and harmony between individuals, with undisturbedness, in a peaceful mind free from fears and agitating passions and moral conflicts.”     -James 3:18 amp

Credits:  This course is from the National Endowment for the Humanities:  Picturing America.
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DOROTHEA LANGE: Migrant Mother, c.1936

April 28, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 33 Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother c. 1936  Worksheet HUMANITIES WEEK 33 Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother

The Great Depression was especially hard on farmers. They not only suffered through the national economic crisis but endured a string of natural disasters, including floods and dust storms that devastated their crops and destroyed their livelihoods. Thousands of poverty-stricken families migrated to the agricultural fields of California in search of work, only to find that life was not much better there. The Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), one of the agencies established by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s progressive social policies, employed a team of photographers to document the lives of these migrant workers. The object was to demonstrate the need for federal assistance and justify legislation that would make it possible. Dorothea Lange was among the agency photographers whose task, as the program’s director explained, was to “introduce America to Americans.”

In March 1936, having just completed a month-long assignment for the Resettlement Administration, Lange was driving home through San Luis Obispo County when the crudely lettered sign of a migrant workers’ campsite caught her eye. Instinct rather than reason compelled her to stop: “I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.” Laborers were leaving as she arrived, for late-winter rains had destroyed the pea crop, and with it every opportunity for work. But just inside the camp, sheltered in a makeshift tent, she found a careworn woman with several unkempt children. As Lange was later to learn, the family was immobilized: after days of eating nothing but frozen vegetables taken from the fields, they had sold the tires from their car to buy food.

In the space of ten minutes Lange photographed the squalid scene, moving closer to her subject with each exposure. The last was the close-up view of the woman with three children that we now know as Migrant Mother. With that photograph, Lange achieved what she had set out to do for the Resettlement Association: “to register the things about those people that were more important than how poor they were,” she explained, “—their pride, their strength, their spirit.”

Migrant Mother does not take in a single detail of the pea pickers’ camp—the bleak landscape and muddy ground, the tattered tents and dilapidated pickup trucks. Still, the photograph evokes the uncertainty and despair resulting from continual poverty. The mother’s furrowed brow and deeply lined face make her look much older than she is (thirty-two). Her right hand touches the down-turned corner of her mouth in an unconscious gesture of anxiety. Her sleeve is tattered and her dress untidy; another of Lange’s photographs shows the mother nursing the baby who now lies sleeping in her lap.
Evidently she has done all she can for her family and has nothing left to offer. The older children press against her body in a mute appeal for comfort, but she seems as oblivious to
them as she does to Lange’s camera. Lange herself knew only the outline of the woman’s circumstances; she never even learned her name, or that she was a full-blooded American
Indian raised in Oklahoma, in the Indian Territory of the Cherokee Nation.

The morning after Lange visited the camp, she printed the photographs and took them to the San Francisco News. They were published as illustrations to an article recounting the plight of the destitute pea pickers, and the story was repeated in newspapers throughout the nation. The photographs were shocking: it was unconscionable that the workers who put food on American tables could not feed themselves. Spurred to action by pictures that revealed not the economic causes, but the human consequences of poverty, the federal government promptly sent twenty thousand pounds of food to California migrant workers.

For all its power and effectiveness as a documentary photograph, Migrant Mother endures as a work of art. With the mother at the center of a classically triangular composition and
two small heads on either side, the image bears the iconic emotional and symbolic character of a classical monument or a Renaissance Madonna. Yet Lange herself could never understand its particular appeal. When she once complained about the continual use of this photograph to the neglect of her others, she was reminded by a friend that “time is the greatest of editors, and the most reliable.”

Next week is our last class for the school year.  If you would like to bring a treat to share, you may.  Have a good week. -Mrs. S

“Let my soul be at rest again, for the Lord has been good to me.”           -Psalm 116:7

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THOMAS HART BENTON: The Sources of Country Music, c.1975

April 21, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 32 THOMAS HART BENTON Sources of Country Music                                                                                                                                Worksheet Humanities Week 32 Thomas Hart Benton Sources of Country Music

Thomas Hart Benton was eighty-four in 1973, when he came out of retirement to paint a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. His assignment was to describe the regional sources of the musical style known as “country,” and Benton couldn’t resist the opportunity to paint one last celebration of homegrown American traditions. Benton himself was a skilled harmonica player who had been raised on the old-time music of the Missouri Ozarks. It was during his lifetime that the multimillion-dollar country-music industry in Nashville had replaced the community-based music of rural America. As an artist, he had gained a popular following in the 1930s with works that spoke to ordinary people. Along with other Midwestern Regionalists such as Grant Wood, Benton rejected “Parisian aesthetics,” the European influence on American art, and scorned abstract art as “an academic world of empty pattern.” His ambition was to paint meaningful, intelligible subjects—“the living world of active men and women”—that would hold broad, popular appeal. By virtue of its subject and its setting, the Nashville mural was to be a painting, Benton said, “aimed at persons who do not ordinarily visit art museums.”

The Sources of Country Music presents five distinct scenes to survey the music of ordinary Americans. The central subject of a barn dance, with a pair of fiddlers calling out sets to a group of square dancers, describes the dominant music of the frontier. A comparatively calm scene shows three women in their Sunday best with hymnals in their hands, suggesting the importance of church music in Protestant America. In the foreground, two barefoot mountain women sing to the sounds of a lap dulcimer, an old instrument associated with Appalachian ballads. In the opposite corner an armed cowboy, one foot on his saddle, accompanies himself with a guitar. An African American man, apparently a cotton picker in the Deep South, strums a tune on a banjo, an instrument slaves brought with them to the New World. Beyond him, on the other side of the railroad tracks, a group of black women dances on the distant riverbank. Despite the range of regional styles, instruments, and customs, the mural seems to pulsate to a single beat, as if Benton took care to ensure that all the musicians played the same note and sang their varied American songs in tune.

The mural preserves an image of American folkways that were rapidly disappearing. Benton’s characteristically dynamic style expresses the powerful rhythms of music while suggesting the inevitability of change. Many of the robust, nearly life-size figures (canvas measures 6′ x 10′) balance on uneven, shifting ground. The fiddlers look liable to fall into the mysteriously bowed floor, and the log on which the banjo player sits threatens to roll down the steep slope of the red-clay landscape. Even the telephone poles seem to sway in the background. The steam engine, an indication of change, represents the end of an agrarian life and the homogenization of American culture, which necessarily entailed the loss of regional customs.

The mural pays homage to the country music singer and movie star Tex Ritter, who had helped to persuade Benton to accept the Nashville commission but died before it was completed. Benton represents Ritter as the singing cowboy who turns to face the coal-black engine steaming along the horizon. The train itself was modeled on the Cannonball Special, driven and wrecked by Casey Jones, the hero of an American ballad;

http://youtu.be/aZiQ89_s67Q

It also calls to mind “The Wabash Cannonball,” a popular folk song about a mythical train that glides through the country, then rumbles off to heaven.

http://youtu.be/LMiU_aknPDA

The engine, which may signify the positive as well as the negative aspects of American progress (see Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad,), is the only element of the complex composition that Benton felt he couldn’t get quite right. Unfortunately, we will never know how he wanted the train to look. Benton is said to have died of a massive heart attack while standing before the mural in January 1975, trying to decide whether to research and repaint the train. Whether the story is true or not, his final work was never signed.

The following link features Thomas Hart Benton’s explanation of this work’s commission and him actually working on The Sources of Country Music.  This video is a rare treasure of an artist at work.

http://www.viddler.com/v/d4b08313#errorExplanation

 

Have a good week. -Mrs. S

“The Lord remembers us and will bless us.”  -Psalm 115:12

Credits:  This course is from the National Endowment for the Humanities:  Picturing America.                   Video of Mr. Benton:  © 2006-2016 Viddler, Inc. – 520 Evans Street, Suite 1, Bethlehem, PA 18015 USA
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Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, No. 57, 1940-1941

April 14, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 31 Jacob Lawrence Migration Series          Worksheet  Humanities Week 31 Jacob Lawrence Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence did not need to look far to find a heroic African American woman for this image of a solitary black laundress: his mother had spent long hours cleaning homes to support her children. Both she and the artist’s father had “come up” — a phrase used to indicate one of the most important events in African American history since Reconstruction: the migration of African Americans out of the rural South. This exodus was gathering strength at the time of World War I, and fundamentally altered the ethnic mix of New York City and great industrial centers such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

Lawrence was born in New Jersey, and settled with his mother and two siblings in Harlem at age thirteen. Harlem in the 1920s was rich in talent and creativity, and young Jacob, encouraged by well-known painter Charles Alston and sculptor Augusta Savage, dared to hope he could earn his living as an artist. “She [Augusta] was the first person to give me the idea of being an artist as a job,” Lawrence later recounted. “I always wanted to be an artist, but assumed I’d have to work in a laundry or something of that nature.”

Jacob Lawerence Migration 2

Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence

The subject of the migration occurred to him in the mid-1930s. To prepare, Lawrence recalled anecdotes told by family and friends and spent months at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library researching historical events. He was the first visual artist to engage this important topic, and he envisioned his work in a form unique to him: a painted and written narrative in the spirit of the West African Griot — a professional poet renowned as a repository of tradition and history.

The Migration Series was painted in tempera paint on small boards (here, twelve by eighteen inches) prepared with a shiny white glue base called gesso that emerges on the surface as tiny, textured dots. Lawrence, intent on constructing a seamless narrative, chose to work with a single hue at a time on all sixty panels. He used drawings only as a guide, painted with colors straight from the jar, and enlivened his compositions with vigorous brushstrokes that help further the movement of the story. The captions placed below each image are composed in a matter -of-fact tone; they were written first and are an integral part of the work, not simply an explanation of the image.

Lawrence often described the migration as “people on the move,” and his series begins and ends with crowds of people at a train station (a potent symbol for growth and change in American history). In the first panel, people stream away from the viewer through gates labeled “Chicago,” “New York,” and “St. Louis”; in the last one, they face us, still and silent, behind an empty track. The caption, which states, “And the migrants kept coming,” renders the message sent by the painting ambiguous and evocative. Are the migrants leaving us, or have they just arrived? What is our relationship to them? Lawrence also asks those questions of the laundress, who appears toward the end of the series. Her monumental, semipyramidal form, anchored between the brown vat containing a swirling pattern of orange, green, yellow, and black items and the overlapping rectangles of her completed work, is thrust toward us by her brilliant white smock. With head bent in physical and mental concentration, she wields an orange dolly, or washing stick, in a precise vertical: a powerful stabilizing force in the painting, and a visual metaphor for her strength and determination.

Jacob Lawerence Migration 1

Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence

Lawrence showed The Migration Series in Harlem before being invited to bring it to a downtown setting that had previously displayed only the work of white artists. The exhibition received rave reviews and Lawrence’s acceptance by the art world and the public was confirmed when twenty-six of the panels were reproduced in Fortune magazine. Lawrence had intended the series to remain intact, but agreed to divide it between two museums, the even numbers going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the odd numbers to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C

Have a good week. – Mrs. S

Credits:  This course is from the National Endowment for the Humanities:  Picturing America.
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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: Fallingwater, c.1935–1939

April 7, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 30 Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater          Worksheet  Humanities Week 30 Frank Lloyd Wright Worksheet

Fallingwater is a man-made dwelling suspended above a waterfall. It offers an imaginative solution to a perennial American problem: how to enjoy a civilized life without intruding upon the natural world. Especially in the United States, which had once possessed infinite acres of unspoiled land, technological progress almost always comes at the expense of nature. (see:  Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt)  A long tradition of American landscape painting had developed partly to satisfy city dwellers with restorative glimpses of the countryside they’d left behind. With Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright went one step further—designing a house nestled into a mountainside, with views that made the house appear to be part of nature itself.

Fallingwater was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, founder of a prominent Pittsburgh department store. To escape the pressures of business, Kaufmann and his family regularly left the city for their sixty-acre woodland retreat in the Allegheny Mountains. By 1935, the Kaufmanns’ country cabin was falling apart, and Wright was invited to design them a new weekend residence. Kaufmann undoubtedly envisioned a house overlooking the most outstanding feature of the property, a mountain stream cascading over dramatically projecting slabs of stone. Wright believed that a country home should become
part of the landscape. He studied the site from every point of view before making the audacious proposal to build the house on the side of the cliff. The waterfall itself would be invisible from the interior but wholly integrated into the plan, with a stairway from the living room giving direct access and the rush of falling water always echoing through the house.

Fallingwater designed by Frand Lloyd Wright c. 1935 - 1939

Wright had never been constrained by convention, but even for him, the design for Fallingwater is a stunning feat of invention and one of the most original and groundbreaking concepts in the history of architecture. A traditional country house would
have been set back from the road on a manicured lawn with a pleasing view of the wilder regions that lay safely beyond its boundaries. Wright reversed that idea. Fallingwater, a large, low structure hovering like a boulder over the falls, seems almost as much a part of nature as apart from it. Every element of the architecture is meant to blur the distinction between the natural and built environments, and to integrate the residents into the
out-of-doors. Deeply recessed rooms, fieldstone interiors, and unusually low ceilings create the impression of a cave—a private, sheltered space within the natural scheme of things.

If, through light and sound and structure, Fallingwater evokes the feeling of existing in the unspoiled American wilderness, everything else about it is unmistakably modern. The house is a marvel of twentieth-century technology. Although it proved impractical for all sorts of reasons, it was the architect’s (if not the client’s) dream house, and Wright would not permit a single alteration to his plan. The most striking element of the design—and the biggest engineering challenge—is the series of reinforced concrete terraces cantilevered above the rocky ledges and parallel to the natural lines of the site. Although firmly anchored in solid rock, the terrace platforms appear to defy gravity; Wright compared them to trays balanced on a waiter’s fingers. Between the terraces are rooms with glass walls—transparent boundaries between inside and out. Walls not made of glass are built of locally quarried stone, and the massive, central fireplace is composed of boulders removed from the site to make way for construction but restored to form the hearth, the traditional heart of a home. As the distinguished scholar and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable has observed, the effect of Fallingwater “is not of nature violated, but of nature completed—a dual enrichment.”

Have a good week! -Mrs. S

Credits:  This course is from the National Endowment for the Humanities:  Picturing America.

“And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” -Matthew 28:20

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EDWARD HOPPER: House by the Railroad, c.1925

March 31, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 29 Edward Hopper House by the Railroad  Worksheet:  Humanities Week 29 Edward Hopper Worksheet

The sunlight illuminating House by the Railroad is bright enough to cast deep shadows on the stately Victorian mansion, but not to chase away an air of sadness. The painting expresses Edward Hopper’s central theme: the alienation of modern life. Instead of happy, anecdotal pictures celebrating the energy and prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, Hopper portrayed modern life with unsentimental scenes of either physical or psychological isolation. Most are set in the city, where people often look uncomfortable and out of place. Others, like House by the Railroad, picture solitary buildings in commonplace landscapes.
Hopper’s House by the Railroad is symbolic of the loss that is felt when modern progress leaves an agrarian society behind.

House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, c. 1925

The single focus of the painting is a large gray house in an imported French style. Although Hopper customarily worked from life, he invented this house based on some he came across in New England and others he may have seen on Paris boulevards. This architectural style became fashionable in America during the mid-nineteenth century. Its hallmark is a double-pitched roof pierced with dormer windows that give height and light to the attic level. From this we might assume that the once-grand Victorian house in Hopper’s painting had been built for a large family with the means to construct a residence in the latest style. If to our eyes these antique features lend the house a certain charm, in Hopper’s time it would have appeared a clumsy relic from an awkward era—“an ugly house,” as one critic phrased it, “in an ugly place.”

Like the house, the site once may have been more attractive. The tall, hooded windows must have overlooked a landscape; the double veranda and tower were presumably positioned to take advantage of a view, probably over miles of lush countryside.
Now the many windows appear tightly closed, with shades mostly drawn, as if they have become obsolete for a landscape that holds little to admire. It is possible that the house
has been deserted; in any event, nature’s absence is also pronounced, similar to the industrial scene in Charles Sheeler’s American Landscape. House by the Railroad might even be considered the domestic complement to Sheeler’s work, although Hopper seems not to have felt Sheeler’s contradictory attitude toward modern life. Whether he regarded
the house as lastingly beautiful or hopelessly old-fashioned, Hopper presents it as an enduring emblem of the past.

The two themes of modern progress and historical continuity come together in the second man-made feature of the painting, a railroad track running so close to the house that a passing train would have rattled its windows. From our curiously low viewpoint, the track appears to slice through the lower edge of the structure—or, to regard it in a different way, to become part of the house itself, a new foundation for American life. An enduring sign of progress, the railroad was the primary agent of industrial change. It enlarged existing cities and created new ones on the frontier. It also provided Americans with unprecedented mobility, allowing them to explore other regions of the country. But as Albert Bierstadt observed in the previous century, the railroad came at the cost of the American wilderness. Even earlier in the nineteenth century, Thomas Cole had considered the consequences of American migration from the early settlements on the East Coast. As The Oxbow suggests, a well-tended countryside held practical and aesthetic advantages but forever altered the unspoiled landscape that was America’s pride.

Hopper rejected European influences, maintaining that American art should capture the character of the nation. Like Cole and Bierstadt, he expresses the tension between nature
and culture. Although railroad tracks are typically associated with the noise, speed, and rapid change of modern life, this scene is curiously still and silent, as if the rush of industrialization has passed it by. Hopper, working in the period between the two world wars, appears to have found little to celebrate in the urbanization of America, which had destroyed its original, pastoral aspect. Here, the railroad track is the color of earth, taking
the place of the stream, valley, or farmland that once formed the background of American culture.

Mark your calendars.  Book report is due for Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington on April 14.  The following is the format to follow for your book report:  How to Write a Book Report  Also, as I discussed in class, review the grading rubric that I used for your previous book reports.

Have a a good week! -Mrs. S

Credits:  This course is from the National Endowment for the Humanities:  Picturing America.

 “Those who went ahead and those who followed Him were shouting,

“Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is our ancestor David’s kingdom that is coming! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”                                                                                                                             -Mark 11:9-10

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WILLIAM VAN ALEN: The Chrysler Building, c. 1926–1930

March 24, 2016 PowerPoint Humanities Week 28 William Van Alen The Chrysler Building  Worksheet Humanities Week 28 William Van Alen The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building could only have been constructed in the competitive climate of Manhattan in the 1920s. The American economy was flourishing, and there was not enough office space to go around; urban builders were encouraged to aim high. In
1926, Walter P. Chrysler, one of the wealthiest men in the automotive industry, entered his bid in the unofficial competition to build the tallest structure in New York City. He wanted an office building exalted enough to symbolize his own astounding ascent
in the business world. Brooklyn-born architect William Van Alen, who had a reputation for progressive, flamboyant design, met Chrysler’s challenge with a seventy-seven-story building, the first in the world to exceed a height of one thousand feet.

The Chrysler Building by William Van Alen, c. 1926 - 1930

The pyramidal form of the Chrysler Building was dictated by a 1916 zoning ordinance requiring buildings to be stepped back as they rose to allow sunlight to reach the streets. This restriction allowed architects to take a more sculptural approach to urban design. Instead of the tall, bland, rectangular boxes that had begun to colonize the city, inventive
and dynamic forms began to lend interest and variety to the Manhattan skyline. The ordinance also focused attention on the summit of a building. Atop the Chrysler, seven overlapping arches diminish toward the top to create the illusion of a building even taller than it is. The distinctive decoration, a pattern of narrow triangles set in semicircles, has been likened to a sunburst, but it might equally recall the spokes of a wheel.

Van Alen’s signal contribution to American architecture was to apply to modern skyscrapers the visual vocabulary of Art Deco, an international decorative style that emphasized streamlined motifs and often employed nontraditional materials.

To make the Chrysler Building distinct from others of its kind, Van Alen chose motifs appropriate to the machine age, particularly the automobile. The spire’s gleaming stainless steel cladding calls to mind the polished chrome of a brand new car. Stylized American eagle heads protrude from some corners of the building in playful reference to the  gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals. Other corners are embellished with the winged forms of a Chrysler radiator cap. One ornamental frieze incorporates a band of hubcaps.

If the exterior ornament enhances the modernity of the skyscraper, the interior was designed to recall the distant past, and positions the Chrysler Building among the wonders of the world. The most spectacular features of the grand lobby are the elevator doors, adorned in brass and marquetry (decorative inlays on a wood base) with the lotus flower motif. The discovery in 1922 of King Tutankhamen’s tomb had unleashed an enthusiasm for archaic and exotic cultures, and the Chrysler Building was designed at the height of this mania for all things Egyptian. In addition to the lotus decoration, the public rooms display a range of ancient Egyptian motifs intended to suggest the building’s association with the great pyramids of the pharaohs. The paintings on the lobby ceiling record the heroic progress of the tower’s construction, as if the monument to Chrysler had already assumed a place in history equal to that of the Great Pyramids.

Both Chrysler and Van Alen were intent upon making this building the tallest in the city, but toward the end of construction there was uncertainty over whether it could indeed hold that distinction. A rapidly rising office tower in Lower Manhattan had already reached 840 feet, and its architect, Van Alen’s former business partner, who acknowledged competition from the Chrysler, pushed his building even higher by adding a sixty-foot
steel cap. Not to be outdone, Van Alen had his workers secretly assemble a twenty-seven-ton steel tip, or vertex, which was hoisted at the last minute to the top of the building as a magnificent surprise to the city. With that, the Chrysler not only exceeded the height of its Wall Street competition, but surpassed even the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As it happened, that hard-won prize would be lost within the year to the Empire State Building, which is 202 feet higher.

William Van Alen’s reputation suffered after the completion of his most famous building. Accused by Chrysler of taking bribes from contractors, the architect never received full payment for his work. The effects of the Depression on the building industry further added to his woes. Today, Van Alen, with no major studies dedicated to his work, is little known in the history of architecture. On his death, the New York Times failed to even publish an obituary.

Mark your calendars.  Book report is due for Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington on April 14.  The following is the format to follow for your book report:  How to Write a Book Report  Also, as I discussed in class, review the grading rubric that I used for your previous book reports.

Wishing you a blessed Easter.   – Mrs. S

“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart.”  John 14:27

Credits:  This course is from the National Endowment for the Humanities:  Picturing America.
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