The Story of the Faulkner Murals

On Tuesday, July 2, 2019, Lester Gorelic gave a talk in the William G. McGowan Theater in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, on The Faulkner Murals: Revealing Their Stories. It is available for viewing on YouTube.

In 2014 the National Archives’ Prologue magazine published Lester Gorelic’s article, The Faulkner Murals: Depicting the Creation of a Nation, the story behind the murals that hang in the National Archives Rotunda.

Commission on Fine Arts viewing the Faulkner Mural The Constitution with Archivist of the United States RDW Connor, 10/23/1936. (National Archives Identifier 7820667)

A longer, footnoted version is now available on the National Archives History Office website. It provides a more in-depth discussion on how the murals depicting the Constitution and Declaration of Independence came to be—beginning in 1934 when Barry Faulkner was commissioned to paint them, through the long design and approval process, and finally to their installation in 1936.

Gorelic admits that the given complexity of the Faulkner murals, the journey of discovery was a long and arduous, with him wishing at times that he could simply ring up historian J. Franklin Jameson as Faulkner had done to obtain the information.

J. Franklin Jameson. (National Archives Identifier 12169072)

For background, Gorelic researched in holdings of the Volunteer Library of the National Archives in Washington, where he volunteers once a week. He also researched in textual records at the National Archives—the Records of the Commission on Fines Arts (which oversaw the design and creation of the paintings) and the Records of the Public Building Commission proved particularly fruitful.

The visual records of the Photography Archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the textual and visual holdings on the murals of the Cheshire County Historical Society in Faulkner’s hometown of Keene, NH; the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, NH; and the archival records of the New York Times were also helpful in Gorelic’s research.

Barry Faulkner Mural The Declaration, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

In the Archives Volunteer Library, Gorelic found a copy of Faulkner’s biography, which contained a re-recording of Faulkner’s presentation to the Keene, New Hampshire Daughters of the American Revolution in which he describes the rationale behind a number of the aspects of the murals and their production.

Faulkner’s niece in Keene, NH, provided Gorelic with invaluable information on the location of Faulkner’s papers, sketches, and studies and helped to explain the symbolic meaning of the columns in the murals.

Artist Barry Faulkner, ca. 1930. (Barry Faulkner Papers, Smithsonian Institution)

Gorelic even painstaking researched the foliage in the murals’ background, turning to staff at the National Botanical Gardens, the National Arboretum, and the curator of plants of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation for assistance.

These resources provided a wealth of information on the murals’ production, starting from the signed contract through Faulkner’s intermediate sketches and studies, his black-and-white photographic reproductions, scaling-up the final studies to the full-sized murals, and finally through their painting, installation, and conservation.

Gorelic acknowledges the contributions of all those who helped him tell the Faulkner mural story with special thanks to National Archives staff and the New Hampshire and Virginia facilities that assisted him.

Read the full version of the Story of the Faulkner Murals on the National Archives History Office website.

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