Today’s piece comes from Lily Tyndall from the National Archives History Office.
In 1933, the artist Barry Faulkner began work on two murals that were to adorn the walls of the National Archives Rotunda. The paintings were to reflect and honor the spirit of our nation’s founding documents.
After three years of sketching and editing the designs, and the actual painting, the murals were installed in 1936 (the Constitution and Declaration, which inspired them, didn’t come until 1952).
These larger-than-life murals are more than just art. They represent the complex work that went into drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the documents that rest below them.
Commissioning and Creating the Murals
On October 23, 1933, National Archives architect John Russell Pope hired Faulkner to create murals for the Exhibition Hall. The contract provided a $42,000 budget and required Faulkner’s designs to be approved by the United States Commission on Fine Arts.
Faulkner created several preliminary sketches for the commission to evaluate, but the commissioners reacted unfavorably, citing lack of unity and focus.
After getting advice from noted historian J. Franklin Jameson, Faulkner was able to produce sketches that pleased the commission. These sketches included a landscape—rather than architecture—background that would fit better in the Rotunda and give the feeling of distance and space in the hall.
The commission approved the final studies on January 21, 1935, and Faulkner immediately began creating the full-sized murals.
He rented a large space above Grand Central Station in New York City to house the canvases.
After enlarging the sketches, Faulkner traced the design onto the canvas and painted on the detail, completing the murals in September of 1936.
The murals, which when complete measured 14 x 37.5 feet, were installed in the Rotunda on October 15 and were available for public viewing in November.
The Spirit of the Murals
Faulkner’s mural designs convey the spirit of democracy and demonstrate the differing opinions on American government that went into drafting the Declaration and the Constitution.
The Declaration mural imagines the moment the Declaration was formally presented to the Continental Congress.
The Constitution mural shows James Madison giving the Constitution to George Washington, President of the Constitutional Convention.
The men in both the Declaration and Constitution murals are grouped according to committee and opinion.
For example, in Declaration, Thomas Jefferson hands the Declaration to John Hancock, representing the writing and editing process Jefferson led in the Committee of Five, which was tasked with drawing up a rough draft of the Declaration for debate in the Continental Congress.
Declaration also centrally features the advocates of independence, while those less in favor are on the periphery.
In Constitution, Benjamin Franklin and George Mason are placed together because both preferred that the United States be governed by a plural, rather than just a single, executive.
To illustrate the time period in which the documents were created, Faulkner added a stormy sky in Declaration symbolizing the coming of war.
By contrast, the skies in Constitution are clear, showing how the document was written in a time of peace and unity among the states. Faulkner also included the flags of the 13 original states to further this theme.
Faulkner even included Abraham Lincoln’s profile into the storm cloud in Declaration to demonstrate the connections between America’s early and later history, and to reinforce the National Archives’ mission to preserve and present this history.
Restoring the Murals
Upon installation the murals were treated with a protective coating of beeswax. Although they underwent occasional cleaning, by the 1980s they were in need of major restoration. Bulges and buckling were appearing in the canvas, created by the crumbling plaster behind them.
In 1999, the murals’ restoration was designated as a “Save America’s Treasures” project to occur alongside the renovation of the National Archives Building from 2001 to 2003.
The murals were carefully removed from the Rotunda walls and transferred to a conservation lab, where the canvases were cleaned and restored to their original state.
The murals were then returned to the Rotunda and mounted on aluminum panels for easier future removal and refurbishment. After the building renovations were completed in 2003, the Rotunda was reopened to the public, and the murals were once again on view above the Charters of Freedom.
You can learn more about the Faulkner Murals and their restoration by visiting Archives.gov, and be sure to check out this Prologue article to read about the murals. You can see the murals for yourself by visiting the National Archives in Washington, DC!