Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

French Explorers and Indians

Refer to caption
French Explorers and Indians by Karl R. Free
Washington D.C., William Jefferson Clinton Building
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Passively and submissively a group of Native Americans rests beside and below a trio of French men with goods draped from outstretched arms. A pair of Frenchmen loom with a horse measuring the scene while the leaders of each party embrace as old friends would. Their people stand by looking cautious and subservient. A ship rests in the background of the tropical scene rooted in misconceptions created by religion and stereotypes (Martel). This mural, French Explorers and Indians, is one of 24 providing artistic flare at the William Jefferson Clinton Building in Washington, D.C. Hung on the wall of the seventh floor, Karl R. Free's mural sparks more controversy than the 16th-century event he recreated.

Located in the Federal Triangle complex of the nation's capital, the William Jefferson Clinton Building, previously known as the Ariel Rios Federal Building or the New Post Office, houses various styles of art to accentuate its' "Classical Revival architectural style" (GSA) and cultural affluence. The building replaced a number of local post offices to become a single headquarters for the United States Post Office Department. In 1971, the postal administration left the building making way for the current residents the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA (Ariel Rios). An integral component of the interior resides in the murals that reflect United States' postal heritage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned an art competition as part of the New Deal. The competition created opportunities for American artists and exposed citizens to the fine arts (Ariel Rios).

The romantic ideas of the Old West gained interest on an international scale and can be viewed in many of the murals propagating the real and fictional dangers of traveling west. The imagery of "authentic Americana" (GSA) was the product of President Roosevelt's federal program to represent a changing nation (Ariel Rios). The project's competition created an endorsement for artists providing Free and others with the opportunities to create murals through cultural and artistic expression. Karl R. Free was one of the artists who won a place in the Federal Art Project's national competition. As part of the New Deal, the project allowed him to create his mural French Explorers and Indians (GSA). Born in Davenport, Iowa, Free had his first break in 1923 when he was awarded a scholarship for the Art Students League of New York. He later became a "curator of graphic arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art" (GSA). Free's life and career were cut short at the age of 44, but his contribution to the arts remains. In addition to his mural in Washington, D.C. his work can be viewed at the Davenport Municipal Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that holds the display of his costume designs from the Ballet Caravan's production of Pocahontas (GSA).

Free's New Post Office mural was meant to depict meeting between the French Huguenots and the Timucuan on June 27, 1564 (Martel). The mural is considered a treasured piece of history that portrays a moment at the start of postmaster history, yet it is one of six in the building at the center of debates. Briefly covered along with several other offensive murals in 2000, the French Explorers and Indians mural is again visible after being deemed a historic property under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Section 106 of the Act does not clarify that these murals are historic properties, but they remain displayed for now as perceptions of the past (Tennessee Tribune). Free's mural is accused of being "objectionable due to the subservient positions of the people of color, and the exaggerated naked breasts of the women" (SAIGE) and the historical inaccuracies.

Free creates a narrative that may have some accuracy to the arrival of French expeditions along the St. John River in what is now named Jacksonville, Florida (Broussard). Jean Ribault and René Laudonnière were French commanders who brought expeditions to the area where the Timucuan Indians thrived. Laudonniere and his men began to construct Fort Caroline, during the second expedition, which would later fall to the hands of the Spanish. Prior to that fall, the local Timucuan became increasingly frustrated with the actions of the colonists (Broussard). The French commanders attempted to lure the Timucuan chiefs into an alliance with promises of love and friendship (Martel). These promises laden with alcohol were meant to mask the true intent of converting the natives to the Christian religion, obtaining goods, and accessing the land for colonial expansion.

Laudonnière was portrayed as a heretic by his own people because of an alliance that he built with the Timucuan chief Saturiwa (Martel). In Free's image, a chief and a commander are seen in a friendly embrace likely portraying Saturiwa and Laudonnière. The commander lost favor with the colonists as they struggled to find food and protection. Fort Caroline's lack of food and supplies caused multiple attempts of mutiny. The French turned to the Timucuan whose supplies were dwindling due to the over-consumption of the colonists (Martel). The colonists sought food through desperate attempts of threats and kidnapping that caused further discourse between themselves and the natives.

Jacques Le Moyne, a Calvinist artist, portrayed his view of the accounts at Fort Caroline. The artist portrayed the Timucua people as "perverse and idolatrous" to serve as a caution against those who may befriend the people (Martel). Men, such as Theodor de Bry and Jacques Le Moyne, turned that alliance into a cautionary tale after several bloody attacks by the Spanish. These men took the losses of battle to construct fear and hatred for the indigenous people who the Christian God did not condone (Martel). These tales left many of the French believing that God sought vengeance for those befriending the Timucuan.

Free's portrayals of the men are similar to the French views that the Timucuan men were impressive physically and structurally. Laudonnière wrote that the men were "olive in color, large of body, handsome, well proportioned, and without deformities" (Martel). Henri Voisin observed the men as "handsome, straight, upright, and sturdy, and had a reddish skin" (Martel). These observations can be viewed in Free's portrayal where one of the men has olive skin and another has red. Both are masculine and created with strong physical attributes. Unlike several of William Jefferson Clinton Building’s murals, the artist took care in portraying the Timucuan as noble, which is not to be confused with equal to the men building upon the land.

Free chose to portray noble natives by displaying a bountiful scene free of confrontation. To the left of the scene, a group of Timucuan men and women display "symbols of the land's bounty" (GSA). In the background, a pair of men display a buck while a masculine, partially green man hangs garland from Ribault's Pillar erected at the request of the first French commander to arrive on the shore. A blue man sits sprawled like a Greek god at the forefront of the mural offering a conk shell to the French. The green and blue men are known as medicine men who used colored clay to ceremonially tint their skin (GSA). Sadly, Free did not have any documentation beyond the sketches of de Bry and Le Moyne and watercolors created by John White. The Timucuan people were extinct due to foreign diseases their immunities were unfamiliar with (GSA). His decision to seek out historic imagery to collaborate closely with is a step that allowed him to combine source material with perception.

Employees of the EPA encounter the outstretched wall murals on a daily basis causing formal complaints from EPA employees to express how the murals create an uncomfortable and even hostile work environment (SAIGE). Free's French Explorers and Indians mainly earns its' complaints for the portrayal of half-nude women. The women portrayed are bare-chested with ample and detailed breasts exposed. The removal of the murals commissioned for the building could negatively affect the historic setting, but allowing them to remain may reinforce stereotypes (Shott). Actions of mediation to reach a resolution or find a compromise have not reached an agreement to whether these murals will permanently remain or find a new home for those who may choose to view them.

The mural shares a perception of an event between the French and Timucuan people that relies on a combination of history and interpretation. Vivid imagery of passive gestures is a change to the pop culture depictions of the Old West. Free's mural is not entirely accurate with the use of clothing and jewelry that belonged to other American tribes (GSA). The positions of the men in both parties are a mixture of peace, insecurity, and uncertainty yet the focus is on those kneeling or lounging near the feet of the French. There is a possibility that the Timucuan people are actively working and sharing as the French look on. Free's imagery translates a moment where indigenous and foreign people join together for a moment of peace and welcomed curiosity. The mural portrays men, women, and landscape to capture an image of a moment he wanted to recreate from history. Free did not portray the conflict between the "white and Native American cultures" (Beardsley), instead he created a still of the way of life where he imagined the French and Native Americans exchanging goods.

By Megan Gray


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Broussard, Ray E. "The French In Early Florida (Book)." Hispanic American Historical Review 83.2 (2003): 376. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

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Indians at the Post Office