New Deal Murals
In 1936, while Lehman was living in New York, he was chosen to work as a mural artist under another relief plan called the Federal Art Program. This program fell under the jurisdiction of the administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York City, Audrey McMahon. Under the WPA, Lehman began designing Man's Daily Bread, a large (20'x70') mural that was to be placed in the cafeteria of Rikers Island Penitentiary in New York City.
Initially, the artist Ben Shahn was chosen to do the Rikers Island Mural, based upon his interest in penal reform. The original concept was to use the entrance hallways to show the history of penal reform comparing conditions before and afterwards with more enlightened methods of well equipped shops and civilian instructors, outdoor recreation, and work under healthful conditions.
I came up with the theme, Man's Daily Bread because the mural was in the mess hall of Rikers Island prison where eight to nine hundred prisoners ate three times a day. So, it seemed to me that a theme that had some connection with not only the handling of food, but the idea of earning one's bread by one's own sweat so to speak, would have some good constructive connection with that prison without being an obvious lecture.
Rikers Island Mural created by Harold Lehman for the mess hall of Rikers Island Penitentiary 1937-38
But when the authorities saw initial sketches of prisoners in various states of torture, replete with chain gangs, and police lineups, they opted for Lehman's more inspirational message set in the prison's cafeteria.
Several details from Man's Daily Bread were shown from 1938-40 in various venues including the National Society of Mural Painters and the Whitney Museum. Many reviews and reproductions in newspapers and art publications also appeared at that time. Two large details from this mural were exhibited in the American Art Today building at the 1939-40 World's Fair. One of these - The Driller was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts (now known as the National Museum of American Art) for its permanent collection. Five other details were bought by the Mitchel Wolfson Jr. Collection. They are presently in the permanent collection of The Wolfsonian Foundation in Miami Beach, Florida.
Section of Fine Arts
In 1941, another program was set up under the United States Treasury Department called the Section of Fine Arts. Under this program, murals were commissioned to artists based solely upon artistic merit. It had nothing to do with whether the artist needed the work or not. The first project that artists were assigned to were the new post offices that were being built at the time all over the country.
Lehman was invited to design a post office in Renovo, Pennsylvania under this new Section of Fine Arts program. After an accidental fall from a ladder, which resulted in Lehman breaking both arms, he moved to Woodstock, NY to recuperate and to begin working on this new commission. The theme of the mural for the Renovo post office was related to how production for the war would help our allies win World War II. Lehman explained,
It happened that Renovo, Pennsylvania was the center of a big locomotive repair operation of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The major thing they did was to repair locomotives, a very vital concern of the government during the war years.
Once World War II began, the government's attention was fully engaged with activities relating to the war. It was felt that WPA projects were superfluous, and since there was no longer need for them, money was withdrawn and these projects were put out of business. The government took all of the remaining easel paintings, prints, and any other art from the projects and held an auction. Lehman says, "They auctioned everything off. All of these things were sold by the pound, not by the artwork."
Another tragedy was that there was no thought to preserving the murals and art commissioned during the New Deal. Many works were destroyed, lost sight of, or wantonly vandalized. Lehman's own mural, Man's Daily Bread was destroyed sometime around 1962 without a word to anyone. The warden at Riker's Island Penitentiary ordered it to be pulled down. Lehman bitterly recounts,
Nobody was told, nobody was given an opportunity to salvage it or to do anything about it to save it. The way I found out about it was quite by accident. I merely wanted to see the state of preservation of my painting. In 1975, I made a trip to Riker's Island and found, lo and behold, an empty wall. This is the only way that I found that my painting no longer existed. I had to go out there and discover this."
Next chapter - Woodstock & War Posters
Mural by Harold Lehman.
Mural, by Harold Lehman.
Mural by Harold Lehman
Mural by Harold Lehman.
Story of Rikers Penitentiary mess hall WPA mural & photo. CorrectionHistory.org.
An Incomplete History of Muralism at Rikers Island. Parker Field.
A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals. A 2009 exhibit curated by David Lembeck with Dr. Curtis Miner, Senior Curator of History at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.on
The Living New Deal. Website dedicated to the research, presentation and education of New Deal public works.
My Approach to Mural Painting
Essay by Harold Lehman
I have been asked to say something about my approach to mural painting - a concrete fact - the mural I am now working on at Rikers Island Penitentiary. Before setting a stroke to paper, I was required to submit a thesis concerning my mural plans for approval by the Commissioner of Correction. In order to illustrate some points, which I will presently elaborate, let me quote from this thesis...
The Driller. Mural detail from Rikers Island Mural created by Harold Lehman and owned by the Smithsonian Museum of Art.
Harold Lehman working on the mural for the Renovo Post Office in Renovom PA. 1941
Mural detail from Renovo Post Office Mural by Harold Lehman. 1941