The 1938 mural by New York artist Albert Pels, “Development of the State Normal School,” pays tribute to the ideals of democratic society, public education and the teaching profession.
Born in Ohio in 1910, Pels studied at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts and elsewhere before settling in New York City. He completed the Normal mural at the age of 28.
Contrary to popular understanding, the Pels mural was not a product of the Works Progress Administration (though the 1936 post office in which it resides is!) Instead, the mural came from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. Unlike WPA and other New Deal efforts, “the Section” (as this Treasury program was known) was not a government exercise in targeted relief, for the artists were selected through regional and national competitions rather than on the basis of need or hardship.
More than 70 Illinois post offices received artwork through the Section. Most murals, including Pels’ study of Illinois State Normal University (ISNU, now ISU), were executed as oil on canvas. And many of these of works — again including Pels’ — are representative of the “American Scene” style of art, for they generally avoid symbolism from classical mythology and the like in favor of depicting recognizable Americans in recognizable scenes, from farm fields to the factory floor.
The June 1937 contract to paint the Normal Post Office mural called for Pels to be paid $630 (or more than $10,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars). He received $200 of that when the program director signed off on the preliminary design, $180 when the mural was half-completed, and the remaining $250 upon completion and installation of the finished work. The mural was to measure 11 feet long by 4 feet wide (though it may actually be nearer to 11 feet by 3 feet 10 inches).
“Development of the State Normal School” begins with the settlement of Central Illinois, represented (somewhat romantically) by a covered wagon, and ends with a contemporary scene of ISNU graduates embarking on teaching careers. In between are vignettes of students undergoing instruction in various subjects, as well as depictions of Jesse Fell, founder of both the town of Normal and the university (and the first postmaster to boot), and “Old Main,” the first and most iconic campus building, which fell to the wrecking ball in 1958.
Under the last figure on the right is Pels’ signature accompanied by the completion date — March 1938. Like many of these murals, it was hung above the postmaster’s door.
Treasury Department artists were encouraged to visit communities in which their artwork was destined in order to select and research subject matter appropriate to that locale. It appears Pels did not make such a visit to Normal, though in an April 8, 1938, letter to The Normalite he thanked both C.A. Burner, the weekly newspaper’s editor and publisher, and Rachel Fell Treakle, a daughter of Jesse Fell, for helping him gather “historical facts.”
Pels first announced he would travel to Bloomington in May 1938 to hang his mural, completed two months earlier in New York City. For reasons unknown, the installation was put on hold until mid-June, though that date came and went without a visit by the artist. Finally, on July 1, The Normalite reported that Postmaster Thomas B. Raycraft had received word from Pels that the mural would be hung on July 4. Yet if Pels did indeed install his work on Independence Day 1938, it attracted little attention, as there was no mention of it in either The Normalite or Pantagraph.
There is one other Treasury Department-funded mural in Pels name—“Landing of Swedes at The Rocks in Wilmington” (also 1938), which was originally located behind a judge’s bench in the Wilmington, Delaware, post office and courthouse building. It has since been moved to another post office in what is Delaware’s largest city.
Pels clearly had an interest in art instruction, which made him a fitting choice for the Normal mural. He established the Albert Pels School of Art in New York City, which managed to draw a bevy of celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Lena Horn, Broadway tunesmiths Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, and even famed restaurateur/raconteur Toots Shor.
“Ninety percent of the people who come to the school to study art, painting and drawing have never painted before,” Pels said in an October 1950 interview. “We seek to make the study of art so interesting that it becomes a joy to paint rather than a chore.”
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Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column by the McLean County Museum of History. Bill Kemp is librarian at the museum.