School beautification and social progressivism have gone hand in hand since the idea of public education first took hold in New York City at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Concern for the poor, steady immigration, and the realization that American democracy depended on an educated populace spurred social progressives to action. And so began the New York City school system. Attention to school design followed, and art eventually found its place in these schools.
The earliest murals and stained glass windows commissioned for school buildings coincided with the period in art history known as the American Renaissance, which dated from about 1876-1917, and its offshoot, the City Beautiful movement. The American Renaissance was characterized by collaboration between architects, sculptors, and painters, and the buildings of the period included grand private mansions and civic buildings recalling the splendors of Renaissance Europe and classical antiquity. The City Beautiful movement drew from the example of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which generated much enthusiasm for public art across the country.
New York City school murals and stained glass associated with the Progressive Era constitute the first phase of public art in public schools, with the surging City Beautiful movement creating an expectation of art in schools. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, close to twenty murals were commissioned for New York City public schools, although not all have survived. The most successful examples meet the criteria established by critics of the time, harmonizing with their architectural surroundings in color and scale, avoiding trivial subjects, bearing a connection to the site, and communicating their meaning easily to the general public. Although there were exceptions, artists working in schools took on the mantle of educators, seeking to instruct rather than symbolize, and they favored historical or literary subjects over allegorical ones.