Editor's note: The chapter titled "Creating an Iconography for a New State: The Arizona State Capitol Murals," pp 19-32 in the illustrated book titled The Cowboy's Dream: The Mythic Life and Art of Lon Megargee, authored by Betsy Fahlman, © Copyright 2002 by Desert Caballeros Western Museum, was rekeyed and reprinted with permission of Desert Caballeros Western Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay excerpt or would like to obtain a copy of the book, please contact the Desert Caballeros Western Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
"Creating an Iconography for a New State: The Arizona State Capitol Murals," pp 19-32 in the illustrated book titled The Cowboy's Dream: The Mythic Life and Art of Lon Megargee
by Betsy Fahlman, Ph.D.
It was from his base in California that the artist embarked on the most significant commission of his career. Statehood provided Megargee with the possibility of the big break he had been hoping for, and he was fortunate in Hunt's election to the Governorship. Arizona became the 48th state, following New Mexico into the union, on February 14, 1912. Commissioned to paint fifteen large canvases to be installed in the State Capitol building designed by James Riely Gordon in 1898-1900, Megargee's subjects parallel the iconography of the state seal. The themes chosen broadly summarize Arizona at statehood, encompassing its spectacular landscape and natural wonders, the structures and customs of its indigenous Native American peoples, artifacts of Spanish Colonial settlement, and the agriculture, mining, and ranching which sustained its early settlers. The "five Cs" that are the historic foundation of Arizona's economy -- Copper, Cattle, Citrus, Climate, Cotton are evident in his work. Megargee traveled throughout the state in pursuit of suitable themes.
The monies which made possible this commission were those left over from the process of establishing the new state. When it passed Arizona's Enabling Act, Congress had appropriated the sum of $100,000, which was to cover the expenses of a constitutional convention, a ratification election, and the first general state election. The nearly seven thousand dollars remaining could be utilized "for the general uses of the State of Arizona in whatever manner the Legislature may prescribe."
In later years, Megargee related a rather spontaneous commissioning process: "I came into town looking for work. Although I'd never painted in my life, had no formal art training, and was armed with only a few drawings done on the range," asserting that "He had never touched oils nor had he seen an artist in action." But in truth he had campaigned assiduously for this commission, which he wanted very much.
Megargee first wrote the governor in early February 1913, enclosing some sketches. His aim was to use typical landscapes and themes of the state to express "the various industries of Arizona in a pictorial, symbolic manner." He assured Hunt:
At this point, Megargee's personal financial resources were stretched to the limit (this would remain his lifelong pattern), but he thought this commission would help make his name:
Hunt had high hopes for him too, as he wrote to the artist in March: "I sincerely hope that all your expectations of this canvas will be realized and that it will prove the stepping stone to all that you desire."
Megargee described the broad subject he proposed to depict which would show the "material development and advancement of Arizona." As he observed to the Governor,
The other fourteen canvases he proposed would depict The Indian, Mining, Stock Raising, Sheep Raising, Irrigation, The Grand Canyon, The Desert, Casa Grande, Roosevelt Dam, Canyon de Chelly, Orange Culture, Clearing Land, The Superstitions, The Painted Desert. Regarding the sketches he had already sent:
He continued to send Hunt color sketches as he finished them, but after half a dozen, he decided to wait to see if the committee would grant him the commission. Besides, as he wrote, for "the balance of the pictures I'd have to get out and make sketches from nature." Only two of the sketches survive, one for Mining, and the other of the Roosevelt Dam, a subject ultimately not executed. The Governor placed them where they would be seen: "I have added these sketches to the others with a view to securing the attention desired."
The monies remaining from the statehood fund became officially available in October 1912. Discussion ensued as to how to specifically dispose of the sum, and a number of resolutions were made. It was proposed that the funds be used for:
Hunt favored paintings, so that the capitol might be "furnished in a manner befitting the dignity of the state." One Senator "not being an art expert, objected to the idea of spending so much money for pictures," suggesting instead that the monies be "used to print several thousand copies of the verbatim report of the constitutional convention." Another legislator proposed new desks and carpeting for the legislative chambers. But the murals prevailed in the end, and the Governor, who had a specific artist in mind, enumerated his reasons for recommending Megargee:
Hunt mistakenly claimed that Megargee was "the only native Arizona artist to achieve, thus far, favorable notice from the public." In late March 1313, the Legislature began considering House Joint Resolution No. 8, the bill which would authorize Megargee to "furnish the State of Arizona with some paintings." On May 15, Hunt cabled Megargee in Los Angeles: "Federal fund resolution passed Legislature signed by me today. Congratulations." When Megargee learned he had finally been officially awarded the commission, he declared to the governor: "I'll do my best to satisfy your expectations." He wrote Hunt the next day:
Hunt's reply was measured, and he cautioned the artist that before proceeding that it would be necessary for him to secure the proper paperwork from the State Board of Control: "This Contract, undoubtedly, will have to be very carefully drawn and will have to specify in detail just what will be expected of both parties thereto." The board had not yet met, and Hunt suggested to the artist:
To support his summer work in northern Arizona, Hunt suggested Megargee negotiate a bank loan, which would be facilitated by his signed contract "on which to base your application for an advancement of money." Monies for the project were finally available early in August, and Hunt reported the good financial news to the artist:
Megargee, chronically short of cash, had been anxiously awaiting the funds: "Would appreciate prompt settlement. Every day means idleness and needless expense. Departure depends on amount due to meet expenses of trip." The delay was due to several state officials who needed to inspect and approve the paintings being out of town.
Hunt wrote a letter to George Babbitt in Flagstaff, introducing him to:
Later, on 24 June, Megargee wrote to Hunt:
Hunt was glad to hear of the progress of the paintings: "It is a source of great satisfaction to me personally to feel that you are working so faithfully to fulfill your contract, and I feel confident that the results cannot be other than good. ... The fulfillment of this contract should help make the reputation for which you are striving."
Megargee was grateful for the work: "I want to thank you for your interest in me. There are times when a fellow needs a friend and you surely have proven your friendship for me." He wrote Hunt:
Megargee's fifteen pictures comprised subjects that were "all typical of Arizona," and he was to receive $250 for each painting, for a total of $3750. The cost of materials would be split between the artist and the state, and he intended to use both horizontal and vertical formats for his large decorative panels. The local papers celebrated the fact that there would be "Art Galore for Capitol," pictured in a series that would "portray the transformation of Arizona from a desert to a region of fertile farms and rich mines."
Once the commission was secured, Megargee remained in his
studio in Los Angeles, sending the paintings to the capitol as he completed
them. Their steady arrival, which began in July 1313, was noted in the press,
and all were completed by June 1914. Some record specific state icons, others
are allegorical, replete with state
symbols, and the Governor was pleased with these works, so "representative of Arizona topography and life."
Mining is the transformative industry of the American West, and Arizona's central role in this enterprise since the nineteenth century resulted in its nickname, "The Copper State." Boom towns and ghost towns are central parts of this imaginative history. Many artists were inspired to depict such extractive endeavors, which often took place against the sublime landscape of Manifest Destiny. The image of the lone prospector dreaming of untold riches is as an indelible a part of the myth of the West, as is the cowboy, exemplified by Megargee's Prospector's Dream (private collection). An aging prospector with his pick, shovel, and burdened burrow is one of the most resonant emblems of a state indelibly identified with mining, and appropriately it was the first painting finished for the capitol. Mining: The Prospector, "done in numerous attractive colors," was installed in the Governor's office, as would several of the others when they arrived.
The Governor reported that the first painting had been admired by the many people who had visited his office. Hunt advised:
Megargee's next canvas, entitled The Spirit of Arizona, was broadly allegorical: "It represents the passing away of the cowboy and Indian, and the arrival of goddesses with their arms laden down with orange trees and grains." On a preliminary sketch, which expanded one he had originally proposed be titled "Orange Culture," he noted that:
The artist further outlined his ideas in a letter to the governor a few months later:
The optimistic Progressive Era theme of the painting is echoed by the words to the "Arizona March Song," the state's official anthem. Written in 1915, it was adopted in 1919:
Its boosterish tone evokes a poem by Alvin K. Stabler (1869-1916) entitled "The Arizona Spirit":
Although derived from a long art historical tradition of edenic Golden Age paintings, its imagery was closely linked with development initiatives of the new state. Arcadia was a tract of 250 acres, then outside of the city limits of Phoenix that had been purchased for $250,000 to be developed into "exclusive suburban estates." Its literal arcadian image was promoted in the Arizona Republican in 1924:
With the first two paintings, Megargee's inexperience in working on such a large scale led him to seek advice from Hernando Gonzallo Villa (1881-1952), a Los Angeles artist with whom he shared a studio on the top floor of the Blanchard Building. Although only a few years older than Megargee, Villa had graduated from the Los Angeles School of Art and Design in 1905, and for the next forty years pursued a successful career as a commercial artist and illustrator. His mural, Allegory of Transportation, was shown at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, where it won a Gold Medal. it was the more experienced Villa who helped Megargee with the first few canvases for $100 apiece. Lon recalled that he primed the canvases and sketched the composition, then "he cleaned the brushes while Nando slapped on the paint."
By the time he commenced the third, he felt confident enough to work by himself. Entitled The Spirit of Irrigation, "It shows an irrigation ditch surrounded by fertile fields and in the rear a mountain range." The artist described it to Hunt:
She embodied the optimistic words from the chorus to the state song:
Megargee labored hard to finish the work as quickly as possible:
The state's impressive landscape features inspired several of the capitol paintings, including the fourth to be completed, The Canyon de Chelly, in which he pictured a sandstone obelisk:
Several Navajo Indians are riding in the dry canyon bed. Since Thomas Moran's magisterial rendering, the Grand Canyon has challenged many painters, providing Megargee with a long pictorial heritage on which to draw. Basing himself in Williams, he planned to remain until the picture was finished. He hoped also to purchase a Ford Runabout "as soon as I get enough money ahead, so I can get around from place to place more conveniently. I think it will pay me in the long run saving car fare and transportation expenses." Given that the first four had been well received, he must have been surprised that when the Grand Canyon was presented to the Board of Control for approval, it was "unanimously rejected." Not until the artist applied some "additional touches;" was it accepted. The changes could not have been too time-consuming, for they were completed in a month. A single draped figure stands on a ledge at sunset contemplating the magnificent view.
Several of his canvases explored Native American themes, and his regular visits to the Hopi and Navajo reservations had provided him with a rich source of subject matter, as seen in Hopi Boomerang Throwers. It is one of the canvases he had originally proposed be titled The Indian, but he must have changed his mind about a single figure in favor of a large group composition, writing Hunt, "I'd like to give you some good action stuff." The subject chosen, he noted, was one:
W. R. Leigh had painted a dramatic version of this same theme in 1913 (Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe). Hopi Boomerang Throwers had as much action as he had hoped, and the scene is set in the afterglow of the sunset:
One mural, The Snake Dance, depicts the most photographed Native American ceremony between the 1890s and teens, a scene that was also depicted by many painters. Megargee's canvas was executed at the height of its fascination among Anglo visitors. By 1915 photography had been banned by the Hopi and by the 1920s, efforts by the Federal government to end the ceremony had waned, though it remained a tourist staple. His scene is comprised of dancers with their reptiles, ancient pueblo structures, and the many observers who characteristically showed up to witness the conclusion to more than a week of dances, the first portions of which were conducted in private.
Megargee had hoped to attend the dance in the summer of 1913 with the Governor, who himself had never been to the famous event, but was unable to make it: "I'm getting started so late that I don't know whether I'll be able to get there on time. The show comes off about the middle of this month." Hunt informed him: "Relative to the Snake Dance, I have been informed that will take place on the 21st instant. Perhaps you will yet be able to arrange your affairs so you may get there." In the end Megargee was unable to get his finances in order, and disappointedly wrote he had "no way to get there except by a long roundabout way from Holbrook." He missed the chance to meet a notable friend of Hunt's, who was accompanied by Theodore Roosevelt to the ceremony.
Images of the ceremony were readily available, and Megargee was able to continue his work, despite his not having been able to go to Walpi that year. In April 1914, Hunt wrote to Megargee: "I am pleased to hear that you are doing your utmost on the balance of the pictures, especially the one of the Snake Dance. I feel that will be the one that will cause more attention than the rest and I wish you the best of success."
Also in September, Megargee sent Stock Raising. Renderings of both "Sheep Raising" and Stock Raising had been proposed as part of his cycle of paintings, but only the latter was executed. The image of cowboys on horseback energetically galloping to lasso cattle in the chaparral of the high Arizona desert offered more drama to the artist than did the more placidly paced activities of the shepherd. A monsoon cloud balloons above the action.
With more than half of the canvases done, Megargee contemplated the rest of his series, writing to Hunt in September: "I feel moved to make a suggestion in regard to substituting something else for the Roosevelt Dam picture." He was given permission to replace it with one of the San Francisco Peaks. He had been inspired by a recent camping trip:
Money was always a pressing topic for an artist perennially short of cash. By the conditions set in his contract, he was to be paid each time he sent a painting (subject to approval), but having fulfilled more than half of the commission, and frustrated by the delays between receipt of his canvases and payment, he now requested a regular stipend as he finished the rest: "I'd appreciate it very much if possible to have a monthly settlement same as the other employees of the state if not too much trouble." The state, bound by its financial regulations, could not grant his request. In any event, he was not one to be trusted with money on work not yet executed.
The remaining canvases, which were regularly dispatched to Phoenix, were completed with fewer letters and newspaper accounts. By April 1914, Hunt could observe: "I also note that you will soon have the remaining panels finished for the State." For The Painted Desert, in which "tree bits and stumps lead a viewer's eye into the background" Megargee humorously suggested an alternative title: "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife." In Petrified Forest pieces of ossified prehistoric wood, which the legislature would vote the state fossil in 1988, are littered about. For another canvas, The Superstitions, he made studies on site, recording a desert scene with cacti against a mountainous backdrop.
Early in November 1913, Megargee wrote to Hunt about a trip he had recently made to the ruins at Casa Grande: "Just returned from a horseback ride out to the ruins, they have spoiled the pictorial part by putting on that hideous roof. I'll take it off in the painting. Just as appropriate as a pug hat on an Indian." In Casa Grande Ruins, a coyote ambles through the sagebrush towards what was then thought to be the oldest house in America. He made at least one other version. Cliff Dwellings, one of two he set in the Canyon de Chelly, records the famous aerial residences. His San Xavier Mission pictures the state's most important artifact of the Spanish colonial era.
Overall, his series was well received: "Megargee has spent a lot of time on the deserts of Arizona and has the faculty of putting the colors of the Arizona atmosphere to canvas that is hard to equal." Arizona writers were patriotically enthusiastic in their praise, as was one whose observations appeared in the Tombstone Prospector:
As a new state, Arizona was poised to play a major role in the development of the West, and its leading citizenry desired to participate in the progress and prosperity they anticipated, as well as to attract investors. The Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco (1915), and to a lesser extent the more regionally oriented Panama-California Exposition in San Diego (1915-16), were regarded as a significant opportunity to display the promise of Arizona. Other states were sending exhibitions and if Arizona did the same it was predicted:
Even before the commission was official, Megargee and Hunt shared the hope that the canvases would be displayed in the proposed Arizona building at the exposition:
Certainly the theme of the fair, which welcomed visitors with "Peace I offer you, and Plenty, and Harmony, and Beauty. Here you are safe, and here you are welcome," coupled with its theme of the promotion of "the agricultural and industrial development of the American Southwest," would have fit nicely with the aims of Arizona as depicted in Megargee's paintings. But preoccupied with getting a new state established and lacking in funds, no monies for this purpose were appropriated.
His work received further exposure through the decorative
arts. The battleship USS Arizona was launched in June 1915. In 1916 a set
of 87 silver pieces, some with native copper plating, were commissioned
from Reed and Barton of Taunton, Massachusetts, at a cost of nearly $3000.
Two of Megargee's paintings, Irrigation: The Wedding of the Water and
Land and Arizona: Progress and Civilization were engraved on
a pair of large footed compotes, deepening the symbolic content of his murals.
Many of the other subjects he depicted in his murals were also featured,
though not based on his designs.
77. Arizona Legislative Journal, 15 March 1913: 206. The exact sum was $6950.72 .
78. Cutts, Point West: 21.
79. Ball, "LM -- Maverick Painter," 70.
80. LM to Hunt, 5 February 1913.
81. LM to Hunt, 5 February, 1913.
82. LM to Hunt, 11 March 1913.
83. Hunt to LM, 21 March 1913.
84. LM to Hunt, 5 February, 1913.
85. LM to Hunt, 5 February, 1913.
86. LM to Hunt, 5 February, 1913.
87. LM to Hunt, 25 February 1913.
88. Hunt to LM, 27 February 1913.
89. Joint House Resolution No. 1, approved 15 May 1913. Session Laws of Arizona, Third Special Session, First Legislature of the State of Arizona, pp. 59-61.
90. "Decoration and Re-Furnishing," Arizona Gazette, 17 March 1913.
91. "Art Galore for Capitol," Arizona Republic/Republican, 28 May 1913.
92. "Art Galore for Capitol," Arizona Republic/Republican, 28 May 1913.
93. "Decoration and Re-Furnishing," Arizona Gazette, 17 March 1913.
94. "Decoration and Re-Furnishing," Arizona Gazette, 17 March 1913.
95. Hunt to LM, 28 March 1913.
96. Hunt to LM, 15 May 1913.
97. LM to Hunt, undated letter of 1913.
98. LM to Hunt, 16 May 1913.
99. Hunt to LM, 21 May 1913.
100. Hunt to LM, 21 May 1913.
101. Hunt to LM, 21 May 1313.
102. Hunt to LM, 4 August 1913.
103. Telegram, LM to Hunt, 9 August 1913.
104. Hunt to George Babbitt, 6 June 1913.
105. LM to Hunt, 24 June 1313.
106. Hunt to LM, 1 July 1913.
107. LM to Hunt, 5 February 1913.
108. LM to Hunt, 2/13,
109 "Megargee's First Picture," Arizona Gazette 8 July 1313.
110. "Art Galore for Capitol," Arizona Republican, 28 May 1913.
111. A second artist, William Vincent Besser, was commissioned to paint portraits of sixteen former Arizona governors, the two speakers of the state legislature, and the president of the Senate, for $100 apiece. It was reported that Besser was "residing in Phoenix for the benefit of his health." ("Decoration and Re-Furnishing," Arizona Gazette 17 March 1913.)
112. Hunt to LM, 22 July 1913.
113. "Megargee's First Picture," Arizona Gazette, 8 July 1913.
114. Hunt to LM, 9 July 1913.
115. "Second Painting," Arizona Gazette, 14 July 1913.
116. LM to Hunt, 5 February 1913.
117. LM to Hunt, 9 July 1913.
118. Mary G. Boyer, Arizona in Literature (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, Co., 1935): 314-315.
119. "In All the World There's Only One Arcadia," Arizona Republic/Republican, 28 December 1924.
120. "In All the World There's Only One Arcadia," Arizona Republic/Republican 28 December 1924.
121. Ball, "LM--Maverick Painter," 70.
122. "Third Painting," Arizona Gazette 24 July 1913.
123. LM to Hunt, 3 July 1913.
124. LM to Hunt, 7 July 1913. Megargee also suggested to Hunt that he handle ordering the frames for his paintings as well as the Besser portraits: "I can make a little commission for myself and get them way below the usual discount thereby saving the state quite a few dollars." He offered to show Hunt a sample of the handmade frames he had in mind on one of his own pictures. When first installed in the Capitol, they were put temporarily in dark brown wooden frames (Hunt to LM, 5 November 1913). Hunt said the matter would have to be taken up by the Board of Control and suggested the artist send a sample.
125. LM to Hunt, 21 July 1913.
126. LM to Hunt, 15 September 1913.
127. Board of Control Minutes, 12 November 1912, Record Book No. 3, p. 469. The painting was accepted at the 11 December meeting.
128. "Board of Control Accepts Paintings," Arizona Gazette, 12 December 1913.
129. LM to Hunt, 21 July 1313.
130. LM to Hunt, 21 July 1913.
131. "Megargee Sends Another Picture," Arizona Gazette 17 September 1913.
132. The work is reproduced in Clark Wissler, Constance Lindsay Skinner, and William Wood. Adventurers in the Wilderness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925. The Pageant of America, vol. L): 63.
133. LM to Hunt, 5 August 1913.
134. Hunt to LM, 9 August 1913.
135. LM to Hunt, 15 September 1913.
136. Hunt to LM, 7 April 1914.
137. LM to Hunt, 18 September 1913.
138. LM to Hunt, 18 September 1913.
139. LM to Hunt, 20 October 1913.
140. Hunt to LM, 7 April 1914.
141. The Panama-Pacific Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915, had an exhibit called "The Painted Desert." Financed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, it consisted of "several pueblos constructed by members of southwestern Indian tribes under the supervision of Fred Harvey -- stood out as an ethnological colony par excellence." Robert W. Rydell, All the World's a Fair: (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984): 230.
142. LM to Hunt, from the Grand Canyon Hotel, Williams, [c. 20 October], 1913,
143. LM to Hunt, 8 November 1913.
144. "Art Galore for Capitol," Arizona Republic/Republican, 28 May 1913.
145. "News and Views From the Capitol of Arizona," Tombstone Prospector, 26 March 1914.
146. "San Diego is Hustling: Southern California Preparing a Big Show for 1915 Homeseekers," Arizona: The New State Magazine 3 (March 1913): 13.
147. Hunt to LM, 13 February 1913.
148. Quoted in Rydell, All the World's a Fair: 209.
149. Rydell, All the World's a Fair: 214.
About the author
Dr. Betsy Fahlman is Professor of Art History at the ASU School of Art, Tempe, AZ.
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