In 1933, a government building boom was on to lift the nation out of the Great Depression. The new National Archives building in Washington D.C. was to house the nation’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Barry Faulkner of Keene, N.H., had been selected to create two great murals that would become known as the Faulkner Murals. They would tell the story of the preparation of the two documents. But how to begin?
Faulkner, born in 1881, owed much of his skill to working with Dublin, N.H., artist Abbott H. Thayer and sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. Later in life, Faulkner learned a trick that served him well when creating murals about historic figures: find a children’s book about the topic.
Children’s books were written in simple language, focusing on the grand strokes of a story, not the minute details. But at this stage in his career – he was only in his early 40s – he hadn’t discovered that shortcut. So Faulkner immersed himself into reading the history of the founding fathers, trying to focus on the most prominent to bring the stories to life. But he was hopelessly lost. Biographers all tended to exaggerate the traits of their chosen subject and it became nearly impossible to select the characters for his murals.
Faulkner then consulted John Franklin Jameson, a Massachusetts scholar in charge of collecting manuscripts for the Library of Congress. Jameson had thoroughly studied of the formation of United States. He had particularly emphasized the struggle to control the governance of the new nation and who would profit most.
Jameson quickly helped clear away the mountain of information Faulkner had amassed, giving him thumbnail sketches of the most important players. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington as senior statesmen were critical, as was Thomas Jefferson. But he also offered details on the founding fathers from each state. Who operated behind the scenes, and who was outspoken. Who used their positions as record keepers and report writers to direct discussion. And who shaped the great compromises necessary to reach a final consensus.
Jameson also gave Faulkner one final piece of advice: Make sure he represented every colony. With this new framework, Faulkner set about gathering portraits of the men. Ideally, he wanted four portraits or busts to work from for each character. But some subjects fell far short.
For Josiah Bartlett, who hailed from Faulkner’s own home state, he had only one pencil drawing from which to work. For others, he had only a woodcut. They were “so crude I’m sure the mothers of the men would not have recognized them,” he said.
Moody Founding Fathers
In depicting the crafting of the Declaration of Independence, Faulkner painted Jefferson handing over the finished document. He depicted the other founding fathers to show their likely mood. The more hotheaded seem ready for a fight and the calmer, compromise-minded men posed less enthusiastically.
For the mural about the Constitution, Faulkner became more literal. He depicts Massachusetts’ delegate Nathaniel Gorham with an ungainly sheaf of papers under his arm – probably the makings of his reports that helped create the final document. Elbridge Gerry, meanwhile, is shown in the background.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut brandishes a walking stick, highlighting his demeanor. Faulkner also chose to add a little foreshadowing. The clouds in the Declaration hide a profile of Abraham Lincoln, a nod to the problem of slavery and the Civil War. In his Constitution, Alexander Hamilton carries a sword, a hint of the coming War of 1812.
Faulkner went out of his way to costume the characters appropriately. John Hancock’s attire reflected his great wealth. Southerners with Cavalier origins had fancy dress. Northern Puritans dressed more simply.
The Finished Faulkner Murals
Years of work finally reached their conclusion in 1936 when Faulkner took the two murals from his studio and brought them (each 14 feet by 37.5 feet) to the Archives. Inside the rotunda, workers were plastering two large framed locations on the wall in preparation for the installation.
Faulkner recalled the day: “Washington sweltered in the humidity of early October and even the interior of the Archives, whose marble walls are massive as a Roman tomb, was oppressive…they unrolled the pictures on the floor and compared them with the dimensions of the wall spaces. To my horror and dismay each picture lacked a foot and a half in length. “
But the artist’s assistant quickly calmed him and he simply extended the background to cover the gap.
You can see Faulkner’s work across the country in other murals including the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.; The RCA building at Rockefeller Center in New York City; the Hancock Building in Boston; and the Senate chamber in the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord.
Thanks to: The Faulkner Murals: Depicting the Creation of a Nation, which includes detailed research on Faulkner’s processes and the obstacles encountered in creating the murals.
This story about the Faulkner murals was updated in 2019.