“Indians Receiving Gifts from the Spanish” by Charles Russell Hardman was installed at the Guntersville Post Office in 1947.
This original painting may have been commissioned by the U.S. Treasury as part of a federal public works program. The series of programs, known as the Works Progress Administration, were implemented during the Great Depression to aid in the economic recovery of the country and to provide assistance to the unemployed.
During the New Deal era, the U.S. Government administered four separate art projects that operated from 1933 to 1943. The projects produced thousands of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper. Of these four consecutive projects, the last one, The Federal Art Project, 1935-1942, was the largest in its scope and in the number of artists employed. The state of Alabama has 24 works of art produced under this program.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office, the unemployed in the country included 10,000 out-of-work artists. Works of art were considered unnecessary luxuries during the time of the Depression. With more than 15 million jobless Americans, the number of unemployed artists seemed insignificant and was a small percentage of the total number of people in need. Artists were both unemployed and unemployable.
George Biddle, a lawyer turned artist, wrote to President Roosevelt about the plight of these artists. In his letter he mentioned how artists in Mexico were producing murals through a national painting program. These painters were displaying their art on the walls of Mexico’s government buildings while also expressing the social ideals of their country.
In response to Biddle’s letter, Roosevelt suggested a meeting between Biddle and the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of the Public Buildings Work. With the help of Eleanor Roosevelt and others, the Public Works of Art Project was developed. This project coincided with an art revolution in America where art was becoming more accessible and mainstream to the general public.
It is not clear that the Guntersville mural was, in fact, a New Deal art project commissioned by the U.S. Treasury. There are no files or documents relating to it at the National Archives, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History. The mural is included in the book, “New Deal Art in Alabama” by Anita Price Davis and S. Jimmy Emerson and is listed with the New Deal Art Registry. It is noted to be the property of the U.S. Postal Service so it is assumed to be part of the WPA project.
The New Deal art program ended before the Guntersville mural was installed in 1947, but Charles Hardman began work on it in 1942 (one year before the program ended). He was paid $800 for the painting…roughly $13,000 today. Hardman’s lengthy process of sketching each figure on paper numerous times before transferring to the 12’3 x 3’3 canvas cost him time and money. He particularly liked the subject because it allowed him to contrast the beautifully clad Spaniards with the nude figures of the Native Americans. The color story uses contrasting warm and cool tones with a blending of the two hues in the center. The painting may be based on the 1564 Jacques Le Moyne painting displayed in the New York Public Library depicting Rene de Loudonnier meeting Chief Athore. The theme of the Guntersville mural was prevalent in the many paintings of the time. Meetings between the Spanish and Native Americans were somewhat common in history and local tradition holds that Hernando DeSoto met with Native Americans at a village near present-day Guntersville.
Little is known about Charles Russell Hardman. He was born in Augusta, Georgia, on July 16, 1912, and was buried there December 16, 1995. He also developed a mural for a Miami Beach, Florida, post office in 1940.
“Indians Receiving Gifts from the Spanish” was painted in the New York apartment Charles Hardman shared with his wife. Mrs. Hardman accompanied Charles to Guntersville when he installed the mural. She stated that it was difficult for her to leave the painting after living with it for five years. The December, 1947, issue of Time magazine covered the installation and noted, “As they left the post office, Mrs. Hardman paused a moment for a last look over her shoulder…”
The replica of the painting is to be included in the upcoming North Alabama Mural Trail along with the Tennessee River mural both located at the Guntersville Museum.