Donald J. Hagerty is the expert on Maynard Dixon and has produced many books and articles about this noted California artist. His latest book is The Art of Maynard Dixon published by Gibbs-Smith. In addition, he has curated Dixon exhibits for various Western art museums. Over the years, Hagerty has been a generous donor to the Library and served on the Foundation’s Board of Directors for sixteen years.
In late 1927, the artist Maynard Dixon received the news he had been awarded the contract for a major mural in the new Library and Courts Building across from the State Capitol in Sacramento, the largest mural commission awarded up to that time in California (1). The mural would be placed on the large south wall of the Library’s James L. Gillis third floor reading room. The building’s architect, Charles Peter Weeks, had for some time admired Dixon’s work and urged him to pursue the bid for the commission. By now, Dixon was an accomplished and widely admired muralist. He created his first mural in 1907 for the Southern Pacific Railroad’s passenger station in Tucson, Arizona. In 1914–1915, Dixon painted four large murals for Anita Baldwin’s Anoakia, her home in Arcadia, California. They are now installed on the second floor of the Stanley J. Mosk Library and Courts Building.
The 1920s saw Dixon embarking on major mural projects. The first were mining scenes in 1921 for the dining room of the S.S. Silver State passenger ship. This was followed the next year by a similar one for the S.S. Sierra, a sister vessel. In 1924, he designed and painted Sunol Water Temple for the offices of San Francisco’s Spring Valley Water Company. Acclaimed designer Kem Weber hired Dixon in 1925 to create two large mural hangers with Hopi mythology motifs for the entrance of the Barker Brothers Building in Los Angeles. In 1926, Weeks commissioned Dixon and fellow artist Frank Van Sloun to create a mural, Room of the Dons, located in San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel (now the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins). Another mural installed in the auditorium of Oakland Technical High School in June 1927 became his largest project at that time. The mural, titled California Pais del Sol, spanned the proscenium arch and measured sixty-eight by ten feet. This was followed in 1928 by the Spirit of India designed to grace the foyer of Oakland’s West Coast Theater. Once again, Weeks served as the principal architect for this building’s design.
Dixon started his work on the State Library mural by making several trips to Sacramento from his San Francisco studio to study the reading room wall and the surroundings, creating small pencil sketches as thoughts for the design emerged. A thoughtful, thorough planner Dixon wanted to produce a mural that could exist in harmony with the expansive space in the room. Of paramount importance was the wall itself, and that it be part of the mural decoration, and that the wall has “breathing space.”
A lot of dogma has been peddled around of late concerning mural painting — about significant form, volume, dynamics, golden section, space division, space-filling and God knows what. Nothing is apparently ever said about the WALL. My own dogma, here offered, is that the wall itself is essentially an element of mural design, since it is the wall that brings the decoration into existence (hence MURAL painting) the painter can do no less than respect it; that he should put his painting on the wall without crowding or obscuring it, planning open areas of it as integral parts of his design (2).
There were other considerations, among them Dixon’s concern for the quality and color of surface materials adjoining the mural space and the quality and direction of light. Another issue was the general color and movement of the design as it related to the theme, in other words, the decorative value. The character of the design itself should possess clarity and continuity, along with spacing rhythm. Finally, the design should have surface quality, be unobtrusive and lie down on the wall. “And so,” he declared, “not only will the integrity of the wall be taken care of, but you stand a reasonable chance of convincing the generally skeptical architect — who is harassed by the necessity of being scholar, artist, engineer, diplomat, financier and even politician — that you are a worthy friend and brother”(3).
Dixon avoided ancient symbolism and allegory themes then popular in American mural painting and selected the epic story of California for the mural, which became A Pageant of Traditions. Charles Weeks had suggested the name, but like most titles, it offers little information about the mural’s purpose or the images in it (4). Although the mural space would span seventeen by seventy feet, it was virtually separated in half by the large entrance door to the reading room. In effect, Dixon would paint two murals. After reviewing his series of small preliminary pencil sketches in late spring of 1928, Dixon envisioned the mural’s left panel would embrace the contributions of Native Americans, Spanish, and Mexican participants to California’s history while the right panel documents the American migration to California, a multi-voiced, epic telling of the state’s beginnings. He began work on the mural in July, traveling daily to Sacramento from his Montgomery Street studio on the train or staying for extended periods in a small room at a local hotel, completing the mural in early November. Slowly the mural and its message began to emerge.
For Dixon, the mural would incorporate key values in the founding mythology of California: faith, courage, dreams, determination, adventurism, and hard work. The mural had to be realistic and include familiar symbols drawn from history that allowed viewers to believe in the authenticity of the images. Both figure groupings move upward toward the peaked entrance door where he placed three open books representing Science, Philosophy, and Art encircled by golden halos. In a talk to Library staff on November 1, 1928, Dixon remarked, “This being a library, an institution of human wisdom and knowledge, I had to put a literary classic in the middle. I just did the best I could with the space; the architect gave me a difficult problem by putting that peaked arrangement over the door. I could not have one big figure at the top. I had to split my idea and I had to have a center. We had to glorify volumes in some way, so the easiest thing was to just put a big volume in the middle and then the two smaller ones”(5). Dixon left the volumes blank for the imagination of viewers to decide what they meant.
On the left side, Dixon designed the symbolic figure of Beauty swathed in billowing clouds and smoke, which he thought reflective of California’s arts and cultures through history. Just above the right of the door, he created another heroic figure, Power, partially obscured by wheels of machinery showing the influence of modern technology and industry. Arranged in a loose chronological order, although not strictly so, each grouping commences with the 1500s and ends with the 1920s following California’s march through time. The groups on the left are echoed by the design of the figures on the right. Overall, his design reflects a keen insight into the balance needed to achieve success in large-scale mural art. His long career in commercial art illustrating books and magazines and his work designing poster and outdoor advertising billboards between 1916 and 1921 served him well, with their simplified, sculpturally rendered images and draftsmanship giving strength to his later murals. Dixon’s organized and structured painting technique would endow A Pageant of Traditions with both ancient and contemporary rhythms.
Dixon carefully chose his iconic figures to represent California’s historical progress and pioneering ambitions. Looming large in the background of the left panel are three figures astride horses. The first horseman represents Dixon’s idea of what a dashing early Spanish explorer might look like, while the two men in front are from Mexico’s later colonial period. Here he practiced a bit of artistic showmanship, hinting at only the barest outline of a rider mirroring the contours of the one in front. The perspective he created brings the mounted horsemen an energy which draws the viewers’ attention. Below them he commences with Aztec warriors and a helmeted sixteenth century conquistador clad in armor against the backdrop of a stone temple. Rows of corn signify the importance of maize and the bounty of the new land as the Spanish colonized Nueva España. Next Dixon included four Native Americans prostrating themselves at the feet of a Jesuit missionary, one of those intrepid explorers who marched north from central Mexico and probed the new lands providing the early mapping of what would be eventually known as California. Jesuit missionaries like Eusebio Kino constructed missions throughout Mexico’s Sonora borderlands and Baja California and as far north as present-day Tucson. Through his efforts and the efforts of others, lands that were formerly terra incognito now assumed names on maps preparing the way for later migrations to Alta California. As John Steinbeck writes in his 1952 novel, East of Eden, “When the Spaniards came they had to give everything they saw a name. This is the first duty of any explorer — a duty and a privilege. You must name a thing before you can note it on your hand-drawn map. Of course, they were religious people, and the men who could read and write, who kept the records and drew the maps, were the tough untiring priests who traveled with the soldiers”(6). Signifying the dramatic shift in the cultural landscape, Dixon next portrays three Mestizos, products of the union between Indian and Spanish peoples. They in turn are preceded by a brown-robed Franciscan missionary signifying the arrival of the mission period in California history which lasted from 1769 until 1833. The Franciscans constructed twenty-one missions from San Diego to Sonoma whose purpose was to evangelize Native Americans and transform them into colonial citizens. In front, trudge a rather somber looking mission-era Indian convert carrying a basket of fruits and vegetables accompanied by a small boy who looks around with wonder and astonishment. The posture of the man seems to reflect Dixon’s subtle criticism of the impact of the missions on California Indians. Before them stride a proud Californio and his female companion wearing a billowing white dress with a crimson shawl, and who looks out of the mural with fierce pride. Slightly behind her is another older, white-bearded Californio wrapped in a colorful serape. The Californios were persons of Spanish or Mexican descent who were born in California. They are products of a short-lived pastoral life that had its heyday between 1834 and 1849 before being submerged by the arrival of the Gold Rush. An era of large ranchos, bullfights, dances, horse races, and families whose names have remained on the land, their life has been vividly documented in such classic books such as Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and Gertrude Atherton’s the Splendid Idle Forties. Behind them is another Californio with one hand raised as if in homage and astride his burro, the utility vehicle of those days. The procession concludes with a 1920s-era Hispanic laborer and his spouse who gaze expectantly toward the future.
On the right panel, Dixon again used mounted horsemen for dramatic effect. The first represents a Revolutionary War officer in full uniform signifying the emergence of a new nation — the United States of America and the start of westward expansion culminating in the popular idea of Manifest Destiny during the 1840s. Next is a Plains Indian chieftain with feathered regalia. But why include a Plains Indian in a mural celebrating California? Dixon probably struggled in trying to select an appropriate representative image of an indigenous Californian that people could readily identify. But Dixon knew that of all the North American groups, Plains Indians came to represent to the American public what an iconic Indian should look like and thus made the choice for inclusion, acknowledging the historical inaccuracy. The figure carries a hide shield, on it the image of a Thunderbird, a mythological creature revered by indigenous people. Not coincidentally, Dixon adopted the image in the middle 1890s, modified it, and used it as an adjunct signature on his drawings and paintings. The figure leading the group is Dixon’s interpretation of a mountain man in the manner of Kit Carson or Jedediah Smith. In an impromptu talk to library workers, Dixon observed, “That old mountain chap is the most essentially American figure we have ever developed. I do not think there has ever been a type that meant America as much as that one type”(7). Tough as nails, self-reliant and living beyond the outer fringes of society, mountain men ranged throughout the trackless parts of the American West and California, discovering passes and routes which were then followed by government explorers, wagon trains, and eventually the railroads.
At the lower right of this panel, Dixon commences his march of American history with the image of a New England pilgrim dressed in a distinctive linen shirt with a collar and long-sleeved padded doublet and a cloak draped over the shoulders. Slightly ahead is a later colonist confronted by two somber, if not skeptical, Eastern Woodland Indians. In a nod to symbolism again, Dixon has painted cornstalks next to them. Below and at the very bottom of the panel, he includes images of African Americans, their strong and hardened bodies appearing to indicate the unshackling of chains and a rise to freedom. There were slightly less than a thousand African Americans in California by 1849, but their ranks swelled as the Gold Rush gained momentum. Some were still slaves brought to California by their owners and would eventually gain freedom, but most who made the arduous journey were freemen. They became miners, storekeepers, entertainers, carpenters, barbers, and pursued other occupations as they slowly entered the fabric of California society. The next figure represents a Metis, someone of mixed European and indigenous American parentage whose origins began in Canada. They expanded throughout the American West and into California, working for the Hudson Bay Company and other fur trade outfits as trappers. Many helped discover new routes used by later explorers and settlers and served as interpreters in contacts with native tribes. The four figures in front of that image illustrate the rise of the mercantile class and the coming of the Industrial Age to California. Such individuals as Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, along with others made their fortunes in mining-related activities and helped foster the rapid development of the state’s economy from an agrarian to an industrial one. They in turn are preceded by a jaunty ’49er with his red flannel shirt and gold pan, an immediately recognizable symbol of California. The Gold Rush frenzy attracted large numbers of people from the East and Midwest, but there were French, German, English, Chileans, Spanish, Mexicans, Chinese, Sandwich Islanders, as Hawaiians were then called, and countless others from around the world. They became ’49ers and the image he created serves as a representation for all of them. Finally, Dixon concluded his story of California with the figures of a modern-day American workman, his wife and young son. They too look toward a promising future.
At first Dixon used little color in painting the mural, almost monochromatic, thinking he did not want to disturb people who came to study with flashy hues. But after working on the mural and seeing bright colors among the books and how lively the librarians were, he jazzed it up with more color as he completed the project in November 1928. Dixon employed the colors and tones of California’s varied landscapes, terra cotta and ochre of the earth, the blue of the sky, and the greenish grays of plants. A dusty, almost hazy feeling that speaks to California’s special light blends the mural with the tonal character of the reading room.
For ninety years, A Pageant of Traditions has been part of the daily life of the library staff and the patrons who use the library’s services. Beyond the historical themes and symbolism in the mural lies something else — Dixon’s goal to create a work of poetic color and form. Shortly after completing the mural he described his underlying philosophy: “In looking at this work, people come here, and they ask, what is the story, what does it mean, what is it all about? As a matter of cold fact, what the painter tries to do is to make a beautiful decorative pattern on this wall and the historical material he uses is only incidental — the painter is not supposed to be historical. Of course if he uses historical subject matter, he ought to be in the main correct, but that is just material which he uses to further his primary object which is to create a rhythmic pattern of form and color”(8). After completing the mural, Dixon presented his large palette to the California State Library as a gift. Only three of the drawings he used to create and guide the mural’s design have surfaced so far. The Library, via the Foundation, was able to acquire one of them several years ago, a pen and ink drawing of the beautiful Californio woman. Dixon would go on to create other notable murals before his death in November 1946. But of all his murals, A Pageant of Traditions is his greatest legacy and a treasure for all Californians. Through his combination of the Native American, Spanish, and Mexican heritage joined with the American contributions and anchored by his aesthetic vision, Dixon illustrates the power of cultural exchanges on California’s storied origins.
The California State Library is a public library located in Sacramento, California. The Maynard Dixon mural can be viewed in the California State Library’s James L. Gillis third floor reading room.
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #121. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
1. For biographical information on Maynard Dixon’s art and life see Donald J. Hagerty. The Life of Maynard Dixon. Layton UT: Gibbs-Smith, 2010. Also, Donald J. Hagerty. The Art of Maynard Dixon. Layton UT: Gibbs-Smith, 2010.
2. Quoted in Donald J. Hagerty. Desert Dreams: The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon. Layton UT: Gibbs-Smith, 1993: 130.
3. Quoted in Maynard Dixon: Painter and Poet of the Far West. Edited by Grant Wallace. Typescript Abstract for California Art Research. Volume VIII. WPA Project 2784. O.P. 65–3632. San Francisco, 1937:55.
4. For an overview of the Library and Courts construction see Dorothy Regnery. “The Capitol Extension Group.” California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Fall 2000/Winter 2001: 12–27. Additional extensive information regarding the creation of A Pageant of Traditions and Frank Van Sloun’s mural in the building’s vestibule entrance can be found in Donald J. Hagerty. “A Perfect Union: The Library and Courts Building Maynard Dixon and Frank Van Sloun Murals.” California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Number 106. 2013: 14–23. Also see Donald J. Hagerty. “A Drawing and the Making of a Mural.” California State Library Foundation Bulletin. November 2014: 28–31.
5. Quoted in “Maynard Dixon Explains His “A Pageant of Traditions” Mural to Art Teachers and Library Staff, 1928.” California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Number 115. November 2016: 8–11.
6. Quoted in Missions to Murals, 1820–1930. Edited by Katherine Manthorne. Laguna Art Museum/University of California Press. 2017: 13.
7. Quoted in “Notes from Talk to Library Staff by Maynard Dixon, November 7, 1928.” California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Number 115. November 2016:11.
8. Quoted in: “Maynard Dixon Explains His “A Pageant of Traditions” Mural to Art Teachers and Library Staff, 1928.” California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Number 115. November 2016:10.