Although Albert Herter was recognized as an “easel painter” who concentrated on portraiture and floral still lifes, he had always loved mural painting, a specialization he began early in his career. Herter’s best-known and most personal mural was his work which is displayed inside the Gare de l’Est. one of the railway stations in Paris. It is entitled Le Départ des poilus, août 1914. It was one of many mural commissions he completed during his lifetime, many of which were for buildings in America, such as the murals prominently displayed in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (Milestones on the Road to Freedom, dedicated in 1942) and in the Connecticut Supreme Court Hearing Room (The Signing of the Fundamental Orders of the Constitution 1638-39, and An Allegory of Education, both installed in 1913).
In 1926, Albert completed his most famous monumental painting which measured 12 x 5 metres depicting the departure of young soldiers to the front. It was entitled Le Départ des poilus, août 1914. Poilu is an informal term for a French World War I infantryman, meaning, literally, “hairy one” and is still widely used as a term of endearment for the French infantry of World War I. The word hints at the infantryman’s typically rustic, agricultural background.
Albert Herter, who painted the work in an empty room of the Palace of Versailles, donated the work to France in memory of his eldest son. In the upper half of the painting we see a depiction of young men in uniform on the train awaiting departure to the Front. The soldier on the far right carries the French tricolour.
Look at the soldier in the centre of the painting with his arms raised aloft. In his right hand he holds up a rifle, the muzzle of which is filled with a bouquet of flowers. This is a portrait of Everit, his younger son, who was to die on the battlefield.
The lower half of the painting is dedicated to the soldiers’ families who have come to say their farewells. Look at the man to the right who carries a bunch of flowers. He is bent over and clutches his chest. This is a self-portrait of the artist, Albert Herter. He has depicted himself as being sad and somewhat fearful of the fate of his son.
Scan across to the left of the painting and look at the woman in white with hands clasped in prayer. This is a portrait of Herter’s wife Adele. She has a haunted look on her face. She too is fearful for her son. The painting was inaugurated on 8 June 8th 1926 in the lobby of the Paris Gare de l’Est Station in the presence of Marshal Joffre. It has hung at many different places in the station. The painting was removed from the Gare de l’Est in 1948, to be cleaned of the dirt deposited by years of smoke from steam trains. It was returned in 1964, but was removed again in 2006 to allow the station to be adapted for the TGV Est.
After restoration, it was reinstalled in early 2008 hanging seven metres above the floor in the station’s Hall d’Alsace. The Gare de l’Est was chosen as a site for the work as it is a place of remembrance of the First World War as many soldiers passed through it on their way to the front while those returning home from the battlegrounds passed through there on their way to joining their families at home. For many veterans, the painting by Herter was regarded as an invitation to remembrance and recollection.
Another series of Herter’s murals was commissioned for the Wisconsin Supreme Court Hearing Room although these were somewhat controversial. The controversy was written about in the 1995 Wisconsin State Capitol Historic Structure Report which reported:
“…The complicated and protracted story of the Wisconsin Supreme Court murals involved three different artists (one of whom perished on the Titanic), justices who needed to be convinced of the desirability of murals in the hearing room and an architect who was determined to implement his scheme for the space. The justices, accustomed to portraits of former justices on the walls in the hearing room of the previous capitol, wanted to hang the portraits in the new hearing room…”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court Hearing Room is reputed to be the most beautiful of its kind in the country. In addition to the walls and columns of marble from Germany, Italy, France and Maryland, the bronze candelabras, the carved mahogany bench and counsel table, the most striking objects are the four large murals by Albert Herter, each nine feet by 18 feet six inches. Each mural depicts a source of Wisconsin law.
The mural on the north wall, to the left of the Hearing Room shows King John of England sealing and granting Magna Charta (the Great Charter) in June 1215 on the banks of the Thames River at the meadow called Runnymeade. His reluctance to grant the Charter is shown by his posture and sullen countenance. But he had no choice. The barons and churchmen led by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, forced him to recognize principles that have developed into the liberties we enjoy today. King John, out of avarice, greed or revenge, had in the past seized the lands of noblemen, destroyed their castles and imprisoned them without legal cause. As a result, the noblemen united against the king. Most of the articles in Magna Charta dealt with feudal tenures, but many other rights were also included.
Article 39 provided:
No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or in any way destroyed, nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
Article 40 promised:
To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.
Out of these and other provisions came the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury. Freedom of the church was also guaranteed in the Charter. The barons and churchmen claimed that all of these were ancient rights expressed in earlier charters of Edward the Confessor and Henry I. This mural commemorates our indebtedness to English common law, brought to these shores by the early British colonists. The young boy holding the dog was modelled by Christian Herter, son of the artist. He became governor of Massachusetts and secretary of state under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The mural on the west wall over the entrance to the Hearing Room depicts an incident in the reign of Caesar Augustus Octavius. The Roman writer Seutonious tells of Scutarious, a Roman legionnaire who was being tried for an offense before the judges seated in the background. The legionnaire called on Caesar to represent him, saying: “I fought for you when you needed me, now I need you.” Caesar responded by agreeing to represent Scutarious. Caesar is shown reclining on his litter borne by his servants. Seutonious does not tell us the outcome of the trial but leaves us to surmise that with such a counsellor he undoubtedly prevailed. The mural represents Roman civil law, which is set forth in codes or statutes, in contrast to English common law, which is based not on a written code but on ancient customs and usages and the judgments and decrees of the courts which follow such customs and usages.
The mural on the south wall portrays the trial of Chief Oshkosh of the Menominees for the slaying of a member of another tribe who had killed a Menominee in a hunting accident. It was shown that under Menominee custom, relatives of a slain member could kill his slayer. Judge James Duane Doty held that in this case territorial law did not apply. He stated:
“…it appears to me that it would be tyrannical and unjust to declare him, by implication, a malicious offender against rules which the same laws presume he could not have previously known…”
Judge Doty acquitted Chief Oshkosh of the charge and they became friends.
In 1848 Wisconsin achieved statehood and this mural shows the state’s indebtedness to territorial law. Article XIV of the Wisconsin Constitution of 1848 says the common law in force in the territory and the laws of the territory are part of the law of Wisconsin except as changed by the Constitution or altered or repeated by the legislature.
The fourth mural, which is actually the first one that is visible on making an entrance to the Supreme Court Room, and is Albert Herter’s rendition of the signing of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. George Washington is shown presiding. On the left, Benjamin Franklin is easily recognizable. On the right, James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” is shown with his cloak on his arm. Although he was in France at the time, Thomas Jefferson was painted into the mural because of his great influence on the principles of the Constitution. The painting hangs above the place where the seven member Wisconsin Supreme Court sit to hand down their decisions. The mural’s position above the bench is symbolic that the Supreme Court operates under its aegis and is subject to its constraints. The United States Constitution has served us well for more than 200 years. This mural shows our indebtedness to federal law.
Thus, the four murals show that Roman, English, federal and territorial law are all part of our legal heritage.
Albert Herter is believed to have used studio space at both his business, the textile design firm, Herter Looms in New York City, and at “The Creeks,” his meticulously designed East Hampton, Long Island estate. Herter’s use of certain colours in his murals so that they complemented the colours in the marble panels beneath them was ingenious. The murals arrived in Madison, and work began on installation at the Capitol on May 25, 1915, The Racine (Wisconsin) Journal-News reported on that day.
“…The pictures cost the state $28,000. Francis D. Millett, who was the first engaged to make the paintings for the Supreme court room, lost his life in the sinking of the steamship Titanic before he could begin the pictures…”
Another set of five murals by Albert Herter can be found in the House of Representatives chamber of the Massachusetts State House, the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court, the state legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The murals known as the Milestones on the Road to Freedom in Massachusetts decorate the upper walls of the chamber. The names above the murals list the fifty-three most important men in Massachusetts history.
The mural on the left was a scene from the court case against a local magistrate, Samuel Sewall. In 1692 a small group of men and women of Salem were arrested for bewitching their neighbours. Samuel Sewall, a local magistrate, was a member of the court that ultimately sentenced nineteen people to be hanged. The tragedy was realised several months later: those still being held were released. In the mural, Sewall is seen standing in Old South Church in Boston with his head bowed as his confession and prayers for pardon are read aloud.
Sewall is said to have fasted one day each year, praying for his soul and the souls of those wrongfully put to death. At the dedication of the murals, this event in particular was singled out as a turning point, for it represented “the beginning of the recognition of the ‘quality of mercy’ in human affairs.”
The mural was a gift of the artist and his son, Governor Christian Herter which was unveiled December 16th, 1942.
Besides these murals at Madison, Wisconsin, Albert Herter’s murals now decorate walls in the State capitols at Hartford, Connecticut, Lincoln Nebraska, the Public Library in Los Angeles, the Academy of Science in Washington DC, the National Park Bank in New York and many other public buildings. It is probably his murals that Albert Herter will be best remembered and one has to remember the story of him as a child when his first drawing was a very large picture featuring numerous people. Maybe his large-scale murals were always going to be his favoured genre.
Information about Albert Herter’s murals at the Wisconsin Supreme Court Hearing Room came from the Wisconsin Court System website: