All of the paintings were commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department
and most of the paintings originally hung in the rotunda of the U.S. Government
Building at the 1893 Fair. The six paintings that hung in the theatre
were originally part of a group of eight. They were 11 feet by 16 feet
in size. An article in the Scientific American, Spring, 1894, listed J.C.
Rogers as buying the eight paintings from the rotunda of The Government
building. The disposition of the other two was an early mystery.
In April 1992 Becky
Peters, a research volunteer for the theatre, found an article written
in 1896 by L.B. Leech. The article describes his visit to Rogers' new
gentlemen's club in the reconstructed Wisconsin building in Kansas City.
His description of two large paintings at the ends of the great hallway
matched in every detail the two missing paintings from the Wamego suite.
Those paintings are assumed to have been destroyed when the building was
demolished in 1960.
The eight paintings
were two sets of four -- one set representing the leading economic features
of the regions of America: North, South, East and West. The other set
depicted prosperous trades and industries. These included "Steel
and Industrial Trades," "Architecture and Building trades"
and "Tapestry and Weaving Trades" and "Ceramic and Pottery
Crafts." The latter two were installed in the Kansas City men's club
Early in the research
we could not determine who had painted the works. A contract in the National
Archives showed an arrangement with Phillipson Brothers of Chicago to
paint the interior of the Government building and eight paintings called
the "Children's Frieze." This does not match our paintings,
and, in fact, a Chicago newspaper reported in February of 1893 that the
paintings by Phillipson were of poor artistic quality and that the Treasury
Dept. had rejected the pieces. Phillipson refused to repaint the murals
pleading insufficient time before the fair opened. The Treasury withheld
the final payment for the paintings and the matter was settled in the
courts some five years later in favor of the Government.
The Treasury also
sent several artists to Chicago who were under contract to the department
for other things such as currency and the art work in the Library of Congress.
They were slated to paint the new murals that were displayed at the fair.
A Chicago scholar by the name of Ron White presents a theory that one
of the painters was William H. Lowe, since there is a strong likeness
to him as young man in the stone mason figure in the painting titled "Architecture
and Building Trades." Furthermore a likeness of his girl friend Mary
MacMonnies, wife of celebrated artist Frederick MacMonnies, is the central
figure of the painting titled "East." Mr. White's belief is
that Lowe used his artistry to inconspicuously put himself and Mary in
the public eye without her husband being aware. Another possibility was
raised when we found one of the Chicago papers had a Theodore Behr depicted
in a sketch working on the painting titled "Architecture and Building
Behr as the artist
was confirmed when the paintings were restored. The conservator found
the painting titled "East" signed E Behr and the painting titled
"Steel and Industrial Trades" signed ETB. It appears that Behr
was the principle artist, but it does not rule out that other artists
assisted. Art historians have found evidence of at least four different
hands during their inspection of the paintings. It is likely the search
for the rest of the story will continue for years.
In the fall of 1990
the Columbian Theater Foundation held a "historic dig" to sort
through the numerous items on and under the stage. About 50 people from
all parts of Kansas worked on the dig. The dig "unearthed" numerous
motion picture items, equipment used in the theatre, such as the gas light
manifolds and gas generator, many flyers and correspondence from the era
of live theatre.
One of the most important
items found under the stage was a large crate that initially was thought
to contain stage backdrops. However, a month later, upon closer inspection,
fourteen additional paintings from the 1893 Columbian Exposition were
found in the crate. These included two 4 feet by 9 feet eagles clutching
a shield and two American flags, four 8½ feet by 4 feet individual
female allegorical figures, two 7½ feet by 14 feet semi-circles
canvasses (one of a mountain scene with mountain climbers in the foreground
and the other of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado).
The last six paintings
are 9 feet high and 19 feet long, and depicted scenes of America: the
U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C., the Golden Gate north of San
Francisco, Niagara Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone Park, Yosemite
Valley, and the Florida Everglades. Each of these six paintings is titled
in 12 inch gold lettering. There were originally eight of these panels,
as they hung in the U.S. Government building rotunda above the other paintings
that are now on the walls of the Columbian.
It is clear that
Rogers bought all eight, but two were used for other purposes in the Wamego
theatre. One was painted silver and used as the silent movie screen. The
canvas was found on the stage, well used and showing parts of the gold
lettering through the overpaint. It is believed to be a cityscape of Chicago.
The painting is not restorable. A similar fate may have befallen the other
missing painting, as the top 8 or 9 inches of it was found fastened to
a 20 ft board, the canvas long since discarded.
The Eagle and Female
figures are done in oil and the American scenes are done in a water based
medium called distempera, which is a paint pigment in an animal glue or
gelatin. Finding the fourteen paintings under the stage changed the collection
from, in the words of noted art historian Charles C. Eldridge, former
director of the National Museum of Art in Washington, "six interesting
paintings to a nationally significant twenty painting collection."
The Columbian's collection represents 60% of the decorative art that was
in the Government building.
Other pieces of decorative
art at the Fair were given to fair officials at the end of the Fair. These
items were stored along with other artifacts in one of the buildings selected
to be kept as a museum. The building burned in 1894 about four months
after the Fair closed. All items were lost in the fire. This has strengthened
the belief that The Columbian collection is the only decorative art from
the 1893 Columbian Exposition to have survived.
Continue with the Tour - The Swogger Gallery