24-foot bicentennial mural of George Washington restored

Triumph of Washington, a monumental painting by Gardner Hale that hasn’t seen the light of day in 87 years, has been restored and will go on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The mural is a unique perspective on George Washington, depicting him looking up towards the skies, mounted on his noble all-white destrier (perhaps the famous Nelson?) at the peak of compositional triangle, flanked on both sides by officers carrying the flags of all 13 colonies. Behind them is a skyline of abstract skyscrapers, two of which are topped with pyramids in a nod to the Washington Monument.

Gardner Hale studied in Europe before returning to his native New York in 1917 where he made a name for himself as a painter of murals and frescoes on large surfaces, interior and exterior. The trend for concrete and cement construction at that time dovetailed neatly with his interests as they provided a neutral background for his colorful, vivid, active designs. By the early 1920s his work was in demand all over the United States and Europe.

Painted in 1931 just a few months before the artist died at age 37 when he accidentally drove 500 feet off a cliff on a stormy night, the 24 feet wide and 14 feet high mural was only exhibited once, at the Smithsonian’s George Washington Bicentennial exhibition in 1932. The Triumph of Washington was commissioned specifically for the celebration of George Washington’s 200th birthday. After that exhibition in D.C., the mural was bought by a New Jersey man. He rolled it up and stored it. Its history after that is a mystery. At some point it was acquired by Deedee Wigmore of D. Wigmore Fine Art in New York City. She donated it to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2017.

When conservators examined the mural, they found it in better condition than you might expect from a monumental canvas that had been burritoed for decades. There were some scratches on one end — likely the one that was sticking out from the roll — and a few thin vertical creases. There were also some stains and tears and evidence of water damage. The canvas itself was still pliable and healthy, and because Hale used a thin layer of paint on his murals, there was not a lot of cracking, lifting or bubbling. The top edge had to be reinforced for hanging and the areas of loss filled in without attempting to make it look like they were never there. The museum received a Bank of America Art Conservation Project grant to help fund the treatments necessary to return it to public view.

The mural is now the centerpiece of Renewing the American Spirit: The Art of the Great Depression which opened Saturday in the museum’s special exhibitions gallery. There it takes up an entire wall in the space. The exhibition runs through April 26th, 2020.

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