The Hot Bid: Edward Millman WPA fresco detail

The Edward Millman fresco detail of a post office mural contracted by the WPA. Swann Auction Galleries image

What you see: A fresco detail by Edward Millman of a mural panel he painted on the walls of the St. Louis post office for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $3,000 to $4,000.

The expert: Harold Porcher [pronounced Por-SHAY], director of modern and postwar art at Swann Auction Galleries.

Who was Edward Millman, and what made him a good choice for the St. Louis post office mural project? He was a lifelong teacher, skilled in all media – tempera, oil, fresco. His skills with fresco made him one of the leaders to get the mural project for the WPA.

Had Edward Millman done WPA projects prior to this one, and had he worked with artist Mitchell Siporin before? He had worked with Siporin in 1938 on a post office in Decatur, Illinois, and had done other murals himself for the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933.

I understand that Edward Millman went to Mexico and trained under Diego Rivera. How, if at all, does Rivera’s influence show up in this fresco detail and in the finished mural panel? With this panel and the fresco detail, his style is more closely aligned with [Mexican muralist] José Clemente Orozco. What Millman took from Rivera was learning the difficult technique of fresco painting and the high-contrast, limited-detail forms that translate well to fresco. Rivera limited his visual language so it could be read from afar and directly. Millman took that in his education.

What do we know about how the St. Louis post office mural project came to be? That post office was constructed under the New Deal and completed in 1937. Artists submitted images to compete for the job. Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin were competitive because they had experience in fresco, and this job called for fresco work. Both had gone to Mexico to study mural-painting with José Clemente Orozco.

I looked at the website The Living New Deal, and I think I see the panel from which the fresco detail came – I think it’s from the far right of panel seven. Is that correct? Yes. Three large mural panels were done by Edward Millman and three by Mitchell Siporin. There were also two small mural panels, one by each artist.

What’s going on in the Edward Millman fresco detail? What do we see here? I believe it represents the early Missouri pioneers, and the struggle to go into new territories.

Are the figures settlers who are trying to build a house? They’re moving materials. It almost seems allegorical, but it feels more literal than allegorical. I think he’s trying to be more straightforward and show pioneers. One is carrying wood on his back, and it almost comes across as Christ on the cross.

How did Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin physically do the mural work? Did they paint the frescoes during business hours, as people did their errands below their scaffolding, or did they paint when the building was closed? Thematically, the artists worked together by agreeing to tie the composition together with a ribbon of blue in the background, which represents the river. I would speculate that they worked like any other government employee, putting in daily shifts during working hours, if not nine-to-five. I found a black-and-white photo of them on the scaffolding during work hours.

This WPA post office mural is notable for depicting Native Americans and Black people as part of the story of the creation of Missouri. Do we know how the mural was received when it was unveiled? Was it controversial? I could find no articles on the public reaction at the time, which leads me to believe there wasn’t outrage or pushback from the people of St. Louis. And it has survived. It hasn’t been painted over or covered with other panels. I don’t think there was a huge positive or negative reaction. That’s my sense.

How is this Edward Millman fresco detail typical of his work, and how is it atypical? Subject-wise, I find his work veers toward the hardships and tribulations of working-class Americans. This is one of his more Cubist works in general. He moved away from Orozco-type images as he progressed. His style became more figurative later.

What can we say about the color palette Edward Millman chose for the fresco detail, and for that particular section of the mural? I believe he was, again, following the color palette of work by Orozco. In general, the panel has a wider range of colors, with blues and greens. This detail has darker tones – dark reds, burnt oranges.

Edward Millman painted this fresco detail in tempera on Masonite in 1942, possibly after the mural panel was finished. Why might he have done this? Maybe he painted it for a class, as a teaching tool? I have two thoughts. The inscription at the bottom right of the fresco detail [was maybe] added as a historical document to say the year in which the mural was completed. The second possibility is it was done earlier in 1942 and the mural was completed after. Maybe he was working out that portion of the composition.

I don’t claim to have comprehensive knowledge, but I’m trying to think of any other time I’ve seen an artist make a detail of a fresco in a different medium, and I’m coming up empty …  I agree. These [multiyear fresco mural] projects had to be well mapped-out. Why do a detailed rendering of a mural section in another medium? It’s puzzling. My theory is he was working out the details of a mural section. He might have used it as a reference to do the rest. Thematically, all the panels follow the same concept – three groups of figures, with one group at the left, one at the right, and one in the center. He may have needed to work out the colors and the forms, and only chose this one section to do that.

Did Edward Millman render any other fresco details from the St. Louis post office mural in tempera? Have any of those come to auction? I’ve found no other examples of studies having been sold for this particular project for either artist. Maybe scholars will dig deeper and bring attention to other examples.

What’s the provenance of the Edward Millman fresco detail? Does it come directly from his family? He retained it until his death in 1964. It was bought from the family by a collector in Boston.

What condition is the Edward Millman fresco detail in? The paint and the panel are in great shape. There are hairline scratches in the pigment that expose the white underpainting.

What is the Edward Millman fresco detail like in person? It translates very well in the photo. It uses heavy contrasts and lots of shadow and light. There aren’t a lot of subtleties that are lost.

What is your favorite detail of the Edward Millman piece? Often, when you see studies from a larger composition, it doesn’t feel complete. This holds up as a composition on its own. It’s complete, though it’s a detail of something larger.

What’s the world auction record for a work by Edward Millman? It was a 1941 oil on canvas, titled Flophouse and showing two men, one reclining and one seated. It sold in June 2015 for $24,000. Stylistically, it’s different from the work we have, but compositionally, it’s similar.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? In Edward Millman, you see an artist who’s mastered several techniques. I attribute that to his being a teacher. Not all artists are great technicians. Millman was always learning by creating examples for his students. In that sense, I believe teachers are better technicians than most artists.

How to bid: The Edward Millman fresco detail of the WPA mural is lot 184 in the Artists of the WPA, a sale taking place at Swann Auction Galleries on Feb. 4, 2021. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

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By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY

Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.