Utah’s State Capitol building features several artworks in its interior. Four large murals covering the Capitol Rotunda completed in 1935 particularly display the hopeful imagery typically found in art funded by New Deal-era projects.
The Utah Capitol’s ornate rotunda includes twelve murals that the Public Works of Art Project funded during the New Deal era. The pieces fill the dome and the spaces between the rotunda’s arches. Painted along the dome’s base, four illustrations display scenes from Utah’s pioneer settlement history, including: Father Escalante Discovers Utah Lake – 1776, Peter Skene Ogden at Ogden River – 1828, Fremont First Sees Great Salt Lake – 1843, and Brigham Young and Pioneers Entering the Valley. Prominent architect Richard K.A. Kletting, known for creating several Utah buildings, completed the Capitol in 1915 after winning a competition. Inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, Kletting designed the Capitol in the Corinthian style, seen through features such as its distinct exterior columns. With its large scale, Utah marble, and commanding city view, the building’s construction cost a grand $2,739,529.
Lee Greene Richards led the mural project, while Henry Rasmussen, Ranch S. Kimball, and Gordon Cope assisted him, with Waldo Midgely creating the murals’ borders. Richards grew up in Salt Lake City in an artistic family. He studied under J.T. Harwood in Salt Lake City, and at Paris’s Académie Julian and École des Beaux-Arts. While visiting England on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Richards developed a passion for portraiture, although he also became a popular muralist who captured Utah’s settler history in the rotunda murals. The Capitol rotunda’s murals opened in 1935 with ceremonies headed by former Utah Governor, Henry H. Blood.
The muralists conducted lengthy research to ensure that their chosen depictions were significant and accurately portrayed. While researching Peter Skene Ogden at Ogden River –1828, for example, Richards ensured that he depicted period-accurate weapons. In the murals including Brigham Young, however, Richards decided to artistically represent the Salt Lake City founder with his more recognizable beard, despite pioneer depictions from this period showing that Young was clean-shaven.
Father Escalante Discovers Salt Lake – 1776, depicts the Spanish expedition of Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante accompanied by a small group and one of three Ute people who guided them. Flanked by the area’s foliage, the background exhibits the scenic waters of the Great Salt Lake. In Peter Skene Ogden at Ogden River – 1828, Ogden and his company are in the vividly colored Ogden Valley using weapons like the Hawken rifle, the preferred weapon of choice along the western frontier. Fremont First Sees Great Salt Lake –1843, features John. C. Fremont and his party overlooking the lake’s expanse, positioned in an adventurous pose overlooking the scene. Brigham Young and Pioneers Entering the Valley, focuses on Brigham young and his distinctive beard standing proudly as he reaches the Salt Lake Valley, joined by pioneers, cattle, and covered wagons.
Examining these murals reveals the aims of the New Deal-era art projects in not only employing artists but also in creating a western American artistic identity. Indeed, the Public Works of Art Project-funded murals did not typically illustrate the Great Depression’s despair. Conversely, muralists like Richards chose to focus on themes of a settling, pioneering past. In choosing to depict scenes of Utah’s pioneer settlement, then, this optimistic vision guided Richards and his co-painters.