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826

Early Town (Paducah, KY)

1939
Oil on canvas
120 x 72 in. (304.8 x 182.88 cm)
Signed

Provenance

No known provenance

Exhibition History

No known exhibitions

Published References

Paudcah 1938: "Ramblings"
Robertson 2010: "Presumption of Art," p. 33, color ill.
Jensen 2013: Folinsbee Considered, p. 100, b/w ill.

Commentary

In September 1938, Edward Rowan, chief of the Section of Fine Arts, again invited Folinsbee to submit designs for the Post Office in Paducah, Kentucky (now a federal court house). Although Folinsbee had earlier requested to be reassigned from the mural project in Farrell, PA, the distance to the Kentucky location (a twenty-four hour train ride from New York with a change in Louisville) did not seem to bother him--probably because of the availability of public transportation to Paducah as well as the fact that his new son-in-law, artist Peter G. Cook, would be assisting him in the project. Folinsbee and Cook took the sleeper train from Trenton, New Jersey, and arrived in Paducah the following day, at 9 o'clock in the morning.

According to Cook, they went directly from the station to the Post Office. "The postmaster greeted us cordially," Cook later remembered, "and offered us a drink, which due to the early hour we declined." After pouring himself a liberal bourbon and water ("I never have a drink myself unless I'm by myself or with somebody," he said), the three got down to business. The postmaster suggested that they look for appropriate subject matter along the Ohio River waterfront and the railyard. The city, located at the convergence of the Ohio and Tennesee Rivers, had risen to prominence regionally as a major port for steamboat traffic and for its brick factory and iron foundry, which manufactured crucial rail and locomotive components. Paducah's central location to the nearby Ohio coalfields made Paducah a commercial hub linked to Chicago in the north, and to St. Louis and Gulfport, Mississippi, to the south. The postmaster's suggestions seemed perfect to Folinsbee and Cook, who quickly set off to sketch.

Unfortunately, while the postmaster appeared to be in favor of industrial subjects, others in the town were not so sanguine. Trouble arose in November when Folinsbee submitted his first sketches for review. The site called for two large murals (10 x 6 feet each) to be placed on either side of a central door in what is now the court room. Rowan approved of both of them, but a citizen's oversight committee, comprised primarily of members of the Women's Club, did not. The first object seemed to be the lack of figures in the proposed murals, as well as the way in which Folinsbee proposed to paint the figures that were included. Interviewed by the Louisville Courier Journal (25 Nov. 1938), Folinsbee remarked:

"I was appointed...as a landscape painter, to design scenic murals recording the beauty of Paducah. While figures may be included in an illustrative way in keeping with the period and character of my motives, my work is to be based primarily on the really charming and unusual landscape qualities which greatly impressed me during my visit to Paducah."

Martha Grassham Purcell, president of the Women's Club, retorted, "If appears that Mr. Folinsbee cannot paint figures...if Mr. Folinsbee cannot paint figures, there are those [in Paducah] who can..."

It was not just the figures, however, that raised the ire of Mrs. Purcell and the rest of the Paducah clubwomen and their supporters, it was his depiction of the "charming and unusual landscape qualities" that angered them as well. While Folinsbee's depiction of the waterfront was fine (except for the figures), his depiction of the Paducah railyard was not. At issue, according to the Courier Journal, was whether Folinsbee's murals would be "historical in nature or depict the industrial development of Paducah." Folinsbee, of course, desired to do the latter, but Mrs. Purcell and her fellow enraged citizens wanted the former. Of course, depicting the railyard was, in one sense, historical, but not history as Mrs. Purcell perceived it; she and her fellow clubwomen wanted to depict "Paducah's "stunning history" and its role in the "winning of the west." One supporter, Irwin S. Cobb, a New York-based journalist and former editor of the local paper as well as Purcell advocate, suggested in a letter to regional WPA officials that a suitable subject would be the Battle of Paducah during the Civil War, or an image from the frontier days when the Paducah region was secured against Indian attacks by General George Rogers Clark (known as the "Hannibal of the West" and one of the first whites to set foot in Paducah in 1778). Cobb's implication in his letter was clear: a Yankee had come down from New York and was deciding what kind of history would be immortalized on the walls of the new federal building (several other Northern artists would have similar difficulties with mural projects in the South).

The controversy made its way to Louisville, where Adele Brandeis, head of the WPA branch office there, began to receive letters of protest--misdirected as she had nothing to do with the Public Building Administration's mural project. Brandeis wrote to Rowan on 15 April 1939, "You are really up against a mass feeling of flouted pride in the neglect of the historical significance of the Winning of the West," enclosed Cobb's letter with his suggestions (another of which included an epic battle with the Indians in which scores were killed) for appropriate subject matter as well as other newspaper clippings. Rowan wrote back to Brandeis a few weeks later, remarking "How can anyone believe that a scene depicting a group of Indians shooting at white men from behind trees will prove more 'uplifting' than the dignified design which Mr. Folinsbee has created is beyond me."

Even though Rowan supported Folinsbee's original designs, he did not like the controversy, and soon wrote to the artist suggesting he adjust the subject of one of his murals. Folinsbee complied, submitting a new design that depicted General William Clark and Merriwether Lewis chatting in front of the old courthouse. Mrs. Purcell did not find this design satisfactory either, as it did not include "Hannibal" Clark. Additionally, the old courthouse (by virtue of artistic license) had been moved to a different and incorrect location on the town's main street. The matter was finally settled by Fred G. Neuman, a local historian, who wrote to both Folinsbee and Rowan that in his opinion the new mural design was fine--as "historically accurate" as anything suggested by Mrs. Purcell and her backers. That settled the matter as far as Rowan was concerned, and Folinsbee finished the murals in July 1939; they were installed in September, one year after his first visit to Paducah.

Even though the murals had been completed and installed, several Paducans were still offended by what they depicted. A Mr. S.A. Fowler wrote the United States Postmaster General, Walter Myers, an angry letter in September 1941, declaring that the murals were "not recognized as to [their] worth as depicting the city or its past history. Both of which were put on the walls of the room under protests of the different city organizations because they were not true to its intention." Fowler instead suggested that a painting by a local artist, made in 1870, that had been proposed by the different city organizations in question as a suitable replacement for Folinsbee's murals. The suggest was duly answered and filed by Rowan's staff, but no changes were made.

In the end, the forced revision of Folinsbee's original conception for the murals was cause for regret among local critics--none of whom had dared to challenge the clubwomen earlier. An unidentified clipping in the Paducah files at the National Archives remarks "It is a pity the artist wasn't permitted entirely free choice as to his subject matter. Industry is indubitably the core and the axis of...Paducah, and industrial subjects on the whole, have inspired better work on the part of modern American artists than any other. The city's rather meager history can hardly be expected to prompt the individualistic effort on the part of a painter."

The finished mural pair consists of two panels, Early Town and The River. According to the description submitted to the Section of Fine Arts by Folinsbee, "The panel on the left depicts the foot of Court Street, now Kentucky Avenue, at a time in Paducah's early history just after the building of the first court house there. The mural on the right depicts a river scene at Owen's Island, with the steamwheel steamer, Paducah, moored at the foot of Court Street."

Sketch/study:

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