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 James Michael Newell  (1900 - 1985)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: genre and figure easel and mural painting

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Ad Code: 4
James Michael Newell
from Auction House Records.
Rural Family, 1940
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
James Michael Newell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  After serving in the first World War, he studied in New York at the National Academy of Design* and the Art Student's League*, followed by a trip to Paris, where he attended the Julian Academy* and Ecole des Beaux Arts* in Paris.  In 1928, Newell won the Fontainbleau Prize*, enabling him to travel to Italy where he studied frescoes* in Rome, Naples and Florence.  Shortly before his commission at Evander Childs High School, Newell completed a mural cycle for the Potomac Electric Power Company in Washington, D.C.  During the period of Franklin Roosevelt's administration, he was a favorite artist, and several of his paintings decorated the White House.

One of his most attention-getting WPA projects was a fresco mural, Evolution of Western Civilization, for Evander Childs High School at 800 East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, New York City.  The mural is located in the school library. The WPA/FAP commissioned the mural cycle in 1935, and it was completed in 1938.  It is a true fresco covering 1,400 square feet.  The mural's themes of the complexities of an industrial age, economic depression, and tensions between social classes, led to interpretation conflicts over the mural.

This project began with the recognition that the meaning of artworks changes over time, that what an artist intends and an audience perceives can be very different things.  Although celebrated when it was commissioned by the WPA/FAP in 1935, during the 1960s the Evolution of Western Civilization became a target of student unrest.  In fact, it remained misunderstood by the majority of students in the year 2000.

In order to successfully conserve this mural, it had to be re-contextualized within the school community.  Therefore, the project funded by the Open Society Institute of New York, an entity focused on democracy being accountable to its citizenry, encompassed three components: conservation of the 1930s fresco, an investigation of the mural and the New Deal, resulting in a web site, (see credit below) and the creation of a new mural with students in response to the 1930s image.

Of the original Newell mural, the eight panels, which depict the growth and development of Western Civilization, are the centerpiece of Evander Childs High School's library, and have an important history.  In her essay, "Controversy in Context: A Reassessment of James Michael Newell's Evolution of Western Civilization", art historian Michele Cohen treats the mural as a "case study of the disjuncture between artistic intent and audience perception."

Two essays by the artist James Michael Newell express his thoughts concerning the subject matter and execution of the murals.  Newell's studies for the Evolution of Western Civilization mural, photographed at the artist's home in the late 1970s by art historian Marlene Park, are with the current mural display as well, as is Walt Whitman's poem "With Antecedents", which is quoted in the panel with comments from Newell that the poem, "unifies the thought" that inspired his mural creation.  Finally, a selection of black and white photographs from the collection of the Evander Childs High School Library depict the library prior to and upon the completion of the Newell mural.

N E W   D E A L   N E T W O R K:
Bakkom Photography Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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