Yesterday's News

Man who painted murals at public library returns 52 years later to admire job

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
March 26, 2006

The man who painted Henderson's muses a century ago came back in 1956 to take a look at his handiwork.

I'm referring to those murals in the rotunda of the Henderson County Public Library. For the past century they've smiled down at intellectual exploration, artistic expression and academic endeavor, all of which take place or is regularly on display in the library.

I don't know if you've had a chance to look at them since they were restored four years ago, but you really should. They're quite impressive. And standing in the rotunda and looking up at the murals is about a close as you can physically get to the heart of Henderson culture.

Maybe that sounds a little pretentious, but it's true. The murals are definitely the focal point of the original library building. And what other public building in Henderson has such a long tradition of fostering culture?

Now I suppose, technically speaking, the murals don't really depict ancient Greek muses, but I'm using the term symbolically rather than literally. And it's not like the murals qualify as high art; they could probably best be characterized as high-quality commercial art. The good work of a craftsman as opposed to inspired creativity.

But they were certainly modeled on fine art. Some of the finest. When the murals were restored four years ago by Brian Fick and Mary Yeager of Acanthus Arts, Fick pointed out that one of the female figures is based on a sibyl painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, while another is based on the Greek goddess Artemis, "but instead of holding arrows and a shield she has paint brushes and a palette.

"They're really quite nicely painted," Fick said. "They were definitely done by somebody who had some academic training." From the brush work, he said, "you can tell these were painted very quickly."

John Hartman would be proud. He's the man who painted the murals. Fifty years ago, on March 27, 1956, he was on his way from Florida to Chicago when he stopped by to view his work done 52 years earlier, according to an article written by Hugh Edward Sandefur.

Librarian Sara Winstead noticed "a distinguished-appearing gentleman enter the library Saturday and walk through, giving particular scrutiny to the murals in the lobby."

Winstead approached the man, and asked if she could help. He asked her how long the murals had been there, and she replied since the library opened in 1904.

"Hartman said he was a young man working for a Chicago firm that contracted to decorate the library and he was sent here on one of his first assignments." Library records indicate the interior decorating of the library was contracted to "Messrs. Mitchell & Holback," who were paid $300 for the work, which apparently was done in late 1903.

Hartman noted that the female figures had originally been labeled and that there was a border around them. Those labels -- Poetry, Science, Literature and Art -- and the borders were repainted in the 2002 restoration.

"Hartman disclosed that he used figures in Michelangelo paintings as models," the article notes.

"He said he later went to New York, where he married, and that his wife also was a painter of murals. He now lives in Florida and was en route to Chicago to visit a sister who is ill.

"The painter said he had worked throughout the country since his early days here. Much of his mural painting has been done for large movie houses and hotels."

During the 2002 restoration one of the big mysteries was the name of the artist. The work is signed, on a balustrade in the Literature panel, but the nearest Fick and Yeager could come to deciphering the signature was either "C. Horn" or "Cattorn."

"It's hard to read that script," Fick said. "Your guess is as good as mine."

But the guesswork is over. The artist's name was John Hartman.

I tried to research Hartman via the Internet, but was unable to come up with any information I feel comfortable passing along. The name Hartman is fairly common, after all. Perhaps this column will prompt other information about Hartman to surface.

100 years ago

Two black men from Indiana challenged Kentucky's "Jim Crow" law concerning railroad accommodations, according to a 1906 article in The Gleaner.

The men had bought tickets to Evansville at Union Station and seated themselves in the white compartment, when the conductor asked them to move to the black section. They refused. Only under threat of a beating by a policeman's club did they get off the train.

75 years ago

Work on paving Henderson County's first concrete road began in 1931, according to an article in The Gleaner on this date that year.

The work of paving U.S. 60 from Henderson to Morganfield didn't actually begin until April 6, however, and was scheduled to be completed Sept. 1.

"The distance is 11.5 miles and it will be the first concrete for Henderson County."

25 years ago

An Evansville man was killed when he began driving the wrong way across the twin bridges at 70 mph and collided head-on with another car, according to a 1981 article in The Gleaner.

Henry B. Allen, 70, collided with a car driven by Henry Teague, 54, of Henderson, who was critically injured.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS