By submitting this form you agree to our privacy policy.

Barroom Murals: Modern Art Found in American Bars

In these great American drinking establishments, museum-quality mural art is on the menu.

Maxfield Parrish, Old King Cole, 1906

Maxfield Parrish, Old King Cole, 1906

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

Let’s face it, we Americans are still guilt-ridden Puritans, and we don’t generally think of bars as sanctuaries of art and culture. But I felt differently when, on a recent lecture jaunt to Detroit, I was put up in the wonderful Detroit Athletic Club, designed by Albert Kahn.

Kahn was one of the geniuses of American architecture—the creator of structurally innovative modern factories, with lots of glass, concrete and steel—and of equally wonderful mansions for the very rich, in nostalgic Olde English style. The Athletic Club is more in the historical vein than the modern, though it has touches of Deco. The downstairs rooms have Italian Renaissance grandeur, with wonderful beamed ceilings, and they contain quite fabulous paintings by such artists as Frederic Remington, Arthur Pope, Frank Benson and Childe Hassam. But the most magnificent room is surely the bar, which has rich mahogany woodwork and a splendid mural created specifically for the space by Dean Cornwell, a master of decorative mural painting. It portrays a meeting of Indians with feathered headdresses and British soldiers in bright red coats and makes a dazzling splash of color.

This is a serious room, a place for thoughtful conversation, whether about business or about culture and art. Seldom does one encounter a space so artistic and perfectly in harmony. I began to wonder whether there are other American bars that have murals of museum quality and are worth a visit just to see the art?

No doubt many major artists have avoided barroom murals, thinking it beneath their dignity. But nonetheless, some surprisingly serious and engaging art has been made for such settings, particularly by the illustrators of what is appropriately known as “The Golden Age of American Illustration”— Maxfield Parrish, Dean Cornwell and Norman Rockwell, among others. They were long dismissed as somehow less important than “real artists,” but it has become increasingly apparent that they are worthy of respect and study. No doubt I’ve missed some good examples, but here, for starters, is a personal list of bars for the art connoisseur.

Maxfield Parrish,
Old King Cole, 1906,
The King Cole Room, St. Regis Hotel,
2 East 55th Street
at Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.

One of Parrish’s masterworks, the King Cole mural clearly exhibits the most desirable qualities of his work— slightly weird-looking, clearly outlined silhouettes, marvelous gradations of tone, an impish sense of humor and a sky of electrically brilliant blue. At the urging of his friend Nicholas Biddle, the business manager for John Jacob Astor IV, Parrish created the mural in 1905 for the bar of Astor’s Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street and Broadway. Initially, he is said to have been hesitant about producing work for a barroom setting but agreed because he was excited by the challenge of creating such a large painting. Also, the fee of $5,000 was very welcome to a young artist who had just married and was building a home for himself in Cornish, N.H. When he executed the paintings, Parrish had only a small studio, and he had to work on each of the three panels separately. Even then, they would only fit when they were placed diagonally in the room.

That merry soul King Cole, shown with his drinking bowl, was a natural patron for a bar. Bartenders have circulated the rumor that the smirk on King Cole’s face and the reactions of his courtiers were caused by the King’s flatulence, but Parrish himself denied this, protesting that “when I painted it my thoughts were 100% pure.”

After the paintings were installed, the bar of the Knickerbocker became a popular gathering place for stage celebrities, such as John Barrymore, but it closed when Prohibition was enacted, and the hotel was converted into an office building. The paintings languished for a time in storage; then were then lent to the New York Racquet Club; and finally, in 1932, were transferred to the St. Regis Hotel (built by Astor in 1904), where a room was designed around them by the architect William A. Mackay, with Parrish’s guidance.

Maxfield Parrish,
The Pied Piper, 1909,
The Palace Hotel,
2 New Montgomery Street,
San Francisco, California.

The King Cole has some serious rivals, not least the even more dramatic painting of The Pied Piper of Hamelin that Parrish painted four years later for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, which had just survived the city’s great earthquake and fire. Parrish’s neighbors in Cornish posed for the various children, and his older son Dilwyn posed for the boy climbing across rocks a few feet behind the piper, while his younger son, Maxfield Jr., is running at the piper’s side. The theme of flight from responsibility may have led Parrish to choose the subject for a bar, although he later mused over whether it was truly appropriate: “Seems to me I heard somewhere that it was not a subject quite suited to increase the receipts of a bar, as guests in draining a glass were apt to note a child in the painting that resembled a little one at home and then and there cancel their wish for a second glass.”

Howard Chandler Christy,
The Leopard at des Artistes,
1 West 67th Street,
New York, N.Y.

Howard Chandler Christy was the creator of “The Christy Girl”— a more sensuous and less austerely chaste version of “The Gibson Girl”— who captivated American youth for two or three decades after her first appearance as an illustration for a story titled “The Soldier’s Dream,” in Scribner’s Magazine. Christy’s drawings of this siren dressed as a sailor enticed young men to join the Navy, and they endowed even such sober classics as Longfellow’s Evangeline or The Courtship of Miles Standish with sex appeal.

But surely Christy’s most thoroughly amazing creation was the virtual army of stark-naked figures—35 women and one man—with which he adorned the restaurant that occupies the ground floor of the Hotel des Artistes. (Originally called the Café des Artistes, it was closed by longtime owner George Lang in 2009 and reopened in May of this year by restaurateur Gianfranco Sorrentino as The Leopard at des Artistes, on the occasion of which the space was redesigned and the murals treated to a restoration.) Despite its name, The Hotel des Artistes was never a hotel. The 18-story neo-Tudor-Gothic building was constructed to provide apartments and studios for artists, and over the years its residents have included such greats as the dancer Isadora Duncan, the playwright Noel Coward, and the writer Alexander Woollcott. Christy himself was a resident, and needed only to take the elevator downstairs to work on this grand mural project.

Dean Cornwell,
The Treaty of Lancaster, 1936,
The Detroit Athletic Club,
241 Madison Avenue,
Detroit, Mich.

Born in Kentucky in 1891, Dean Cornwell studied with Harvey Dunn, a pupil of Howard Pyle, and in the 1920s was one of America’s most successful illustrators of swashbuckling stories for the popular magazines. In 1927, having never executed a mural painting, Cornwell won an enormous commission to paint murals for the Los Angeles Public Library. Since he had no space large enough to do the work in New York, he moved to England for three years, where he worked in the studio of the English muralist Frank Brangwyn, and under his guidance. For the remainder of his career, Cornwell worked mainly on mural commissions, seeing in them a chance for immortality.

Under the influence of Brangwyn, Cornwell combined realistic figure drawing and accurate historical costumes with an extremely colorful palette, which tends to work in two interwoven zones, one of closely harmonized pastels and the other of dramatic splashes of primaries, with strong accents of red.

His mural for the Detroit Athletic Club was executed in 1936. It portrays the Treaty of Lancaster, signed in 1744, when the governors and commissioners of Virginia and Maryland met with 24 Indian chiefs of the Six Nations of Indians — Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Tuscarora. To ensure that the Indians were accurately represented, Cornwell did extensive research in the Indian department of the Museum of Natural History in New York. As a result of the negotiations, the Indians sold large areas of land to the states of Virginia and Maryland and also agreed to side with the English in their struggle with the French. The subject is appropriate to its location, since by this treaty much of the Northwest Territory, including Detroit, was ceded to the State of Virginia.

Dean Cornwell,
The Raleigh Room, 1937,
Murals on 54,
The Warwick Hotel,
68 West 54th Street, New York, N.Y.

In 1937 William Randolph Hearst commissioned Cornwell to create murals for The Raleigh Room, the restaurant inside his new residential hotel. Cornwell complied with a series of scenes of the life of Raleigh, depicting the explorer-courtier throwing down his cloak over a mud puddle for Queen Elizabeth, receiving a charter from her, and landing on Roanoke Island. After Cornwell had completed the murals, however, he and Hearst disagreed about compensation, and in revenge, the artist added obscene elements to the paintings, including an Indian with bare buttocks and men urinating on both Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth. Fortunately, he painted out these elements once the dispute was resolved. Over time the murals darkened, but they were brilliantly restored in a renovation in 2004.

Norman Rockwell,
Yankee Doodle, 1937,
for the Yankee Doodle Taproom, Nassau Tavern,
10 Palmer Square, Princeton, N.J.

Oddly, Norman Rockwell’s only true mural was for a taproom. Out of the blue Thomas Stapleton, the architect of Princeton University, asked if he would do a mural for the Nassau Tavern—he had seen an illustration of a colonial painter making a tavern sign that Rockwell had created for The Saturday Evening Post. The two huddled and decided that as a whimsical tribute to the battle of Princeton (a victory against the British during the American Revolution), it would be fun to portray Yankee Doodle riding down the town’s main street, Nassau Street, in the company of British soldiers, colonial revelers, dogs, a goose, little boys, a hussy and a disapproving matron.

Despite the humorous theme, Rockwell worked on the design very seriously, commissioning authentic costumes for each of the models and taking nine months to complete the project, as he fussed over every detail. While the movement in the painting is strongly directed from right to left, he used various devices to slow this movement and give the design a decorative quality; and since the background of the mural is a tavern wall, in straight front view, it harmonizes very nicely with the room.

Norman Rockwell,
The Dover Coach,
The Society of Illustrators,
128 East 63rd Street, New York, N.Y.

One other work by Rockwell has come into service as a barroom mural: his painting The Dover Coach, originally created for the Saturday Evening Post, hangs behind the bar in the clubhouse of the Society of Illustrators in New York. The painting was executed during a visit to Hollywood, which made it easy to find the sort of English coach that he needed, as well as historic costumes. Since it was painted in August, it was easy to render the shiny faces Rockwell wanted: his models were dripping with sweat. As with the Yankee Doodle, the use of a straight front view gives the design a strongly decorative quality.

Ludwig Bemelmans,
Bemelmans Bar,
The Carlyle Hotel,
35 East 76th Street, New York, N.Y.

Ludwig Bemelmans, the son of a Belgian artist, grew up in Italy, where his father ran a hotel. As a young man, Ludwig was apprenticed to an uncle at a hotel in Austria, but after shooting another waiter was given the choice of being institutionalized or emigrating to America. He chose the latter, and settled in New York, where he struggled for years to achieve success as a writer and illustrator while supporting himself with hotel work. Success came in 1939 with the publication of Madeline, a rhymed children’s classic that tells of the Parisian adventures of the orphan Madeline and the nun Miss Clavel.

In the ensuing years Bemelmans produced drawings for The New Yorker, Vogue and Town and Country. His whimsical decoration for his eponymous bar makes a delightful contrast to the more academic murals of figures like Rockwell and Parrish. It features child-like scenes of Central Park, including picnicking rabbits. Instead of being paid in cash, Bemelmans exchanged the murals for a year-and-a-half of free accommodations in the Carlyle for himself and his family. In 2002 the interior was renovated by the designer Thierry Despont; the 75-seat bar features one of the best and most expensive martinis in New York.

Sandro Chia,
The Palio, 1985,
151 West 51st Street, New York, N.Y.

For the most part, major modern artists have stayed away from barroom murals, but a notable exception is the work of Sandro Chia for the Palio bar in New York. Chia burst onto the scene in the 1980s with an exuberant mode of figurative painting that brings to mind Picasso, late De Chirico and the great decorative murals of the 1930s, including those of Fascist Italy—and with all these influences combined with the wild, expressive brushwork we associate with the Abstract Expressionists. What more appropriate subject for the hectic, brutal, ambitious city of New York than the Palio, the famous horse-race with no rules and much kicking and pushing and hitting, which has been run in Siena since the Renaissance? A major work of art, dizzying in effect, the mural would make the perfect accompaniment to a dizzying date. Unfortunately, the restaurant Piano Due, which contained the Palio Bar, closed this past summer, so for now the mural can be seen only by appointment with AXA Insurance, which owns the art and the space.

Clarence Van Duzer,
The Skilled Trades
of Cleveland, 2005,
The Tradesman Tavern,
5746 State Road, Parma, Ohio.

What about a barroom mural for the working man? Though I don’t know of a major American barroom mural from the 1930s that glorifies the heroic workman, as did the murals of the WPA, the next best thing is surely the late Clarence Van Duzer’s mural for the Tradesman Tavern in Parma, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. Van Duzer, an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, was trained as a social realist but spent most of his later career producing brushy abstractions reminiscent of de Kooning. In 2005, on assignment from Dave Martina, the president of Martina Marble in Parma, he went back to his WPA roots, spending eight months on a barroom mural that glorifies the skilled tradesmen of Cleveland, as well as businesses associated with the glory days of the city, such as Warner & Swasey telescopes, Jones and Laughlin Steel, and the steamship William H. Mather.

Appropriately, the Martina family is prominently featured: The founder of Martina Marble is shown constructing a building; his son Dave is shown as a glassworker; and Mary, Dave’s daughter, is shown with a stained glass window that fills a nearby window of the room. Not surprisingly, given that it’s owned by Italian stoneworkers, the Tradesman’s Tavern also has remarkable marble work—a magnificent slab of stone for the bar itself and amazing Terrazo inlays on the floor that surrounds it. If you’re ever in Cleveland, it’s worth a trip to Parma to check the place out.

This articles originally appeared in the March issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Praising the Bar”.

By Henry Adams

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2012

By submitting this form you agree to our privacy policy.