Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores

Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores
Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores by Anton Refregier
Former Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, California
Image by Thomas Portue. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The mural at the former Rincon Annex Post Office, Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores, has an interesting history. In 1940, the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture chose Anton Refregier, of Woodstock, New York from among eighty-two contestants to create it and 26 other panels for the same location. Refregier was paid $26,000 to design and paint a chronological history of the city. A strong-minded outsider, Refregier told the San Francisco Chronicle that he wanted to paint the past not as a romantic backdrop but as part of the living present, a present shaped by the trauma of depression, strikes, and impending war. He also planned to represent the entire span of human civilization in the brief history of San Francisco. The artist intended to begin with a California Indian creating a primitive work of art and to proceed through a sequence of often violent conflicts to the 1939 Treasure Island world's fair celebrating peace in the Pacific.

Controversy began before the Rincon paintings were even finished and continued for years afterwards. The Catholic Church, for example, protested while Refregier was painting that a friar preaching to Indians at Mission Dolores was too fat; the artist slimmed the portly priest, but his troubles were only beginning.

On May 1, 1953, — six years after the murals’ completion — the House Committee on Public Works convened a hearing to consider their destruction for allegedly subversive content and excessive modernism. Congressman Hubert Scudder detailed, panel by panel, what he found objectionable in Refregier's cycle. California Indians were depicted as vigorous and strong, he asserted, the Spanish and English explorers as warlike and conquering. The monks building Mission Dolores appeared cadaverous in one panel and big-bellied in the next, where their Indian wards appeared to be starving. The panels The Overland Trail, and Discovery of Gold garnered even more criticism from Scudder and other Congressmen attending the hearing.

What made Refregier's art so dangerously "modern" to his critics was precisely its dissent from official mythology. Scudder, for example, objected to Refregier's depiction of the California Indians as strong and vigorous before the white man's advent. Textbooks and public art had long taught Californians that nature had fated the original inhabitants of their state to vanish before the superior races, and that natives carried little significance except as symbols of brutish humanity from which civilization had risen.

In Sacramento’s State Capitol, for example, artist Arthur Mathews in 1914 had depicted Indians living in childlike innocence until kindly padres arrived to teach them to work. Allegories of Victory and Civilization then led consecutive waves of immigrants past sidelined Indians toward a city of the future, a new Athens on Pacific shores, where Anglo-Saxon maidens dance in flowery meadows.  What Mathews expressed visually, the novelist Gertrude Atherton reiterated in a popular history of the state: "Month after month, year after year, [Father Junipero Serra] traveled over these terrible roads . . . making sure that his idle, thieving, stupid, but affectionate Indians would pass the portals of heaven."[1]

Refregier was well aware of how and why the Indians had passed heaven’s portals suddenly and massively, but he censored himself: "Obviously, I could not go into this and get away with it," he wrote in a letter. His own cycle begins instead with a California Indian creating art, a sign of intelligence inevitably denied him by the conquerors while the following panel contained an Indian mother cradling her child.

In Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores, Refregier gave the Native American laborers at the mission a prominence and dignity rare in public art. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Treasury officials in Washington ordered him to slim down the friar. But that Refregier showed two Indians as strong and dignified workers, standing in the foreground of Mission Dolores with the friar pushed to the background was in itself extraordinary. Though generally sympathetic to Refregier, Congressman John Shelley had trouble understanding what the artist had intended. Answering Scudder's charge that the Indians were excessively vigorous, Shelley said that he did not know whether the Indians were strong, muscular, and sinewy but that he "had always heard that they were very lazy people who were not taken over much by conquest because very little conquest was needed."[2]

Perhaps only an outsider could have shown local history with such breadth, depth, and empathy. As San Francisco bookseller Warren Howell and others testified, Refregier knew the city’s history better than his accusers. He had, furthermore, endowed that history with universality. In his complex depiction of "the vitality, power, and labor of those who came before us,"[3] Refregier had painfully pricked the myth of civilization’s harmonious forward march. The hearing in Washington put history, as well as art, on trial, and showed how inseparable they were in the minds of Refregier's conservative critics.

As you can see, what he did was often subtle: first depicting the California natives as strong, dignified, and endowed with intelligence and maternal care. In the Mission Dolores panel, he moves them to the foreground and shoves the friar to the rear, showing that they were the labor exploited to build the mission and create its wealth. 

Refregier had this to say about what he was doing and was made to do: 
“The Spaniards secured the area and left the monks who cut down the trees and built the first Mission. Considering the kind of painting that is done by Mexican artists, these are rather mild statements of these facts. In spite of this, the Catholic Church was able to force the artist to revise the fatness of the priest – finding his fat stomach a bit too offensive even to them.”[4]

Here is what someone from the San Francisco Labor School (where Refregier taught) had to say about it:
“The pressure generated by the Catholic Church was so great that Anton was forced to take off the big belly and so lose much of the force of the social commentary on our early history. Today no one denies the exploitation of the Indians by the priesthood and the other imperial colonizers, but in the late forties and early fifties, the people at the top wanted it hidden. Of course some still do.”[5]

Subsequent murals in the series display other subtleties: In a panel of the Anglo immigrants crossing the Sierra Nevada in winter, one man lies in the snow with an arrow in his chest. Here is what Refregier had to say about his intention:
“The First Migration — the Americans coming over-land in the snow, meeting tremendous hardships, and facing attacks by the Indians who were protecting their territory and preventing, from their point of view, invasion. In order to avoid making the Indians the villain, the artist avoided this by simply placing an arrows in the heart of one man who was killed….."[6] adding that “My position is that the Indians were defending their land – their families – their hunting ground.”[7]

The California Indians play an important role in Refregier’s visual narration though a subtle one since the New York artist was well aware — as few Californians are to this day — that the state had witnessed a genocide. Although he censored himself in the earlier panels, his audacity in depicting historical facts elsewhere in the series earned the Rincon Annex murals a trial in 1953 from which they barely survived.

By Gray Brechin, Ph.D, Project Scholar, The Living New Deal
Department of Geography
U.C. Berkeley
From “Politics and Modernism: The Trial of the Rincon Annex Murals”
by Gray Brechin
On the Edge of America California Modernist Art, 1900-1950

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford © 1996 The Regents of the University of California


1. Gertrude Atherton, California: An Intimate History (New York: Harper, 1914), 30.

2. Congressional Record , 43.

3. Ibid.

4. Anton Refregier papers, Archives of American Art, Box 17..

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. ibid, Box 12

Indians at the Post Office