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Federal Courthouse and Post Office

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Keywords

Mural, New Deal, Courthouse, Rhor, van Veen, Treasury Section

Artwork Type

Architecture, Integrated, Mural, Permanent



Pittsburgh Panorama, 1937

Stuyvesant van Veen



Photo

Photo
Commissioning Entity The Treasury Section of Fine Arts
Owner United States Government

Pittsburgh Panorama was one of three completed in 1937 for the recently finished Federal Courthouse and Post Office on Grant Street. Like Alan Thompson’s mural in the Squirrel Hill Post Office, these courthouse murals were paid for by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts (or The Section), a New Deal arts program. The other two murals were Howard Cook’s Steel Industry (in situ) and Kindred McLeary’s Modern Justice (no longer extant). 

Stuyvesant van Veen, a young and rebellious artist, submitted two designs for this courtroom. The first, titled Life and Death, was a bleak depiction of the justice system in a capitalist society, which included a blindfolded and a beaten down allegorical image of Justice. For obvious reasons, this sketch was deemed unacceptable for a courtroom setting. The second design was termed an innocuous Pittsburgh panorama, but in fact, it was anything but innocuous. 

The artist presents what at first seems like a rather benign bird’s eye view of the Pittsburgh skyline. Carefully manipulating the scenery to highlight various strata of the city, van Veen included a hidden, but important political symbol. In the foreground, van Veen shows Pittsburgh’s industrial base: railways, mills, mines, foundries and barges fill the banks of the river. From there, the city’s modern skyline rises in the distance, suggesting the fruits of that industry. Framing the scene, then newly inaugurated George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge (1932) arches over the city and its rivers and provides a raised platform for the parade of people and vehicles crossing the bridge. The artist described the groups as: “Smart cars and smart people, trucks and laborers, tramps and buses, everyone who made up the population of that industrial melting-pot of nations and classes.”  As anyone familiar with Pittsburgh knows, van Veen’s depiction is anything but topographically accurate. Instead, he manipulated the bend in the river, so that the finished image would resemble a hammer and sickle, a well-known communist symbol. Van Veen later admitted that he intentionally inserted this symbol to antagonize his federal patrons. 

The artist delayed delivering this work to the courtroom until the last possible moment. In fact, just days before the scheduled mural dedication, van Veen legendarily strapped the canvas to the top of his Chevrolet and drove from New York to Pittsburgh, and, in defiance of federal procedure, installed the work himself. It wasn’t until weeks later, that van Veen’s hidden symbolism was detected. 

By Sylvia Rhor, Ph.D.

 

Sources

Louise Howard Feder, “The New Deal Murals in the Pittsburgh Post Office and Courthouse,” Dickenson College, Honors Theses, 5-23-2010
 
Richard Freeman,  “Where have you been, Stuyvesant Van Veen?” 
 
Oral History with Stuyvesant Van Veen, excerpt of recording with artist, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-stuyvesant-van-veen-13341
 
Dr. Sylvia Rhor is Associate Professor of Art History at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She has written extensively about murals, the history of museum education, and political cartoons. Her doctoral research was the first full-length study of the historic mural collection in Chicago Public Schools. Recently, she published “The Evolution of the Chicago School Mural Movement” in The Decorated School: Essays in the Visual Culture of Schooling (Black Dog Press, 2013), and she co-authored, “Shaping Spaces/Shaping Publics: A Short History of Mural Painting in the United States” in The Companion to Public Art (Blackwell Press, forthcoming). Her current research focuses on the early 20th century labor murals in Pittsburgh. 
 
 

Stuyvesant van Veen was born in New York. At 26, he was a painter, illustrator, cartoonist, and printmaker. He was a contributor to the Nation and New Masses magazines, and exhibited at the Carnegie International in 1929. Just 19 at the time, he was the youngest artist to be included in the show. He studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York, where he worked with renowned American muralist Thomas Hart Benton. In addition to his New Deal murals, van Veen completed several other murals, including a series of seven murals in celebration of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a mural at the New York World's Fair in 1938. From 1949 to 1975, van Veen taught painting and drawing at the City College of New York.