A Tale of Two Murals: Hovey and Orozco

In Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Robert Langdon speaks of the (semi-fictional) “Pius IX’s Great Castration.” The head of the Vatican Gendarmerie, Ernesto Olivetti, asks Langdon if he is anti-Catholic, to which Langdon replies, “No. I am anti-vandalism.” As Dartmouth turns 250, it faces a similar crisis — does it support institutionalised vandalism?

At the centre of this battle are the Hovey murals in what is now the Class of 1953 Commons, which were painted by Walter Beach Humphrey, Class of 1914. A recent ‘study group’ convened by the Interim Provost Dave Kotz recommended to President Hanlon that the offending murals be torn out of their original setting and be confined to a dark, unseen container in an offsite storage facility, probably never to be seen again by Dartmouth students of the years to come, a recommendation that Hanlon unfortunately accepted. Since the early 1970s, the mural has been inaccessible to the general student body, so it is no surprise that the administration has decided to get rid of the mural almost entirely. This is the same administration that went on record last year to say that “the endorsement of violence in any form is contrary to Dartmouth values.” The hypocrisy, though alarming, reflects the double standards of an administration that is ready to denounce physical violence but is all too willing to physically desecrate works of art — and in the past and the future, suppress free speech and expression as well.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The exalted words of philosopher and writer George Santayana are oft quoted, commonly misattributed, and poorly understood — especially at this liberal arts college. By wilfully going down the path of destruction, we encourage the creation of a dangerous precedent, one where we simply get rid of the parts of our history that we do not like. Our history — and our resultant identity — is at danger of being cherry picked to suit the needs of some, a grave disservice to the rest of us. Wilfully destroying our heritage, however abhorrent and offensive it may be, will ensure that we are never able to face the horrors of our past and engage with them productively to prevent its repetition.

One may argue that removing the murals from their original setting does not constitute desecration and vandalism. Yet, the field of art history is obsessed with the work in its original setting for which it was intended. See, for example, Caravaggio’s paintings in the Contarelli chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. While Humphrey is clearly no Caravaggio, it is impossible to suggest that the latter’s paintings would have the same effect if removed from the Contarelli chapel. It is a position that the Department of Art History would never espouse. Yet, when it came to the Hovey murals, a member of the Department of Art History, Prof. Mary Coffey, who was on the ‘study group’, did not espouse this basic tenet of art historical practice — preservation! The cognitive dissonance here is appalling and alarming.

This fiasco has been a long time in the making. Since the 1970s, when Dartmouth started admitting both Native Americans and women in large numbers, the murals have been locked up behind massive wooden doors. Generations of students have been forcefully shielded from a past that the College must certainly reckon with and have been pushed to engage in largely cosmetic debate on the nature of the founding of the College.

The Tale of Two Mural
In an October 1937 Dartmouth Alumni Magazine article titled ‘The Song of Five Hundred Gallons: A Proposed Mural Picturization of Richard Hovey’s “Eleazar Wheelock”; Not Art for Art’s Sake’, Humphrey presents his manifesto for the Hovey murals. “After all, there are only a few things so sacred that we cannot at some time have our little joke about them,” Humphrey argues. Yet, despite all his claims to the contrary to take things “in the lighter vein,” Humphrey championed both the American Renaissance and the Colonial Revival in matters of art, creating an ‘anecdotal classicism’ that was “firmly grounded in Italian Renaissance pictorial conventions ranging from classical nudity to heroic poses.”

Yet, this was not the only mural Humphrey made for Dartmouth. More than two decades after the Hovey murals were completed in Hanover, the Dartmouth Club of New York City commissioned him to execute another set of murals, entitled Eleazar’s Feast (1961). Similar to both Guilio Romano’s 1528 fresco Wedding of Amor and Psyche and Annibale Carracci’s 1590–1600 fresco Triumph of Bacchus (in no less exalted a place than Palazzo Farnese), Humphrey draws on the traditional iconography of the Dartmouth Indian — in an obviously mythical situation. A lion’s head is served on one of the platters, and the left hand side of the mural is dominated by a tiger strung over a pole and carried by two Native Americans. Two semi-nude women find themselves in the service of Wheelock, who presides over the peak of the triangular composition.

In 1979, the Hovey murals were shut off to the public, largely due to protests by women and Native Americans on campus. Two years later, Donald Trump purchased the building that housed the Dartmouth Club of New York City and leased it to the Grand Hyatt hotel. No one knows what happened to the latter mural — but it did not fall victim to the rising danger of censorship, and for that instance, Humphrey will not be turning in his grave.

The Iconography of the Hovey Murals
Any student of the history of art will certainly know that the basic structure of art is the nude body. The Venus of Willendorf, the earliest surviving work of art that dates to 30,000 BC, is a female nude — with accentuated breasts and a pelvic area to reinforce the need for fertility. The nude was established as a respected and privileged portrayal of the female form many millennia before the male nude came to occupy a similar, privileged position. A prime example of this is the Archaic Greek New York Kuoros (590-590 BC), which is one of the earliest surviving nude male statues from Greece.

Yet, as McGrath puts it, “Humphrey’s Indians act out a spectrum of behaviors, ranging from furtive curiosity to rambunctious male bonding” — a clear articulation of the homosocial, one of the markers of (true) conservative neoclassicism. Homosocial interaction and bonding was privileged in neoclassical art because it was largely restricted to those characters in power, and hence I argue that one can as easily assume that despite the surface representations of the Native Americans in the Hovey mural, Humphrey did not intend to denigrate the “Indian” to a less privileged place of power, and that it would not be unreasonable to take Humphrey’s claim — that he simply aimed to make a mural worthy of Dartmouth based off an old drinking tradition — at face value.

One of the tragedies of postmodernism is that scholars and fellow students believe in the abject rejection of historical representation and eschew historical fact in favour of contemporary “opinion” without care for what people of the time thought. The April 1938 issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine carried an editorial note opining that Hovey’s mural, in contrast to Orozco’s, was “a real Dartmouth mural.” For a college whose unofficial motto is “Lest the Old Traditions Fail,” Humphrey did exactly what one would expect an alumnus of the College to do — have fun with the ‘Old Traditions’ while respecting them. Orozco’s mural does not speak to the same, immediate concerns that the Hovey mural does, and has no connection to Dartmouth’s history or traditions.


On a closing note, I will presume that many of you will have found yourself in a frat basement at some point in time. Add a little more clothing — and the scene isn’t too different. I’ve personally seen brothers revel in the joys of alcohol, like those who came before them. Is this how we pay homage to our traditions? Probably. Eleazar Wheelock is our Bacchus, and we are his loyal followers. The Hovey murals are not as problematic as one would imagine, unless we subscribe to the joy-sapping views of fellow social justice warriors (and I use this term rather cynically).

Whether or not you agree with some of my postulations and conclusions above, I hope that you will take a stand against vandalism. I recommend throwing the Hovey murals open to the public. Despite my quips above, this campus is inhabited by more than 4,000 of the country’s smartest men and women, who should be given the choice to see and choose to think for themselves. It’s high time the administration’s paternalistic attitude toward the student body ceases. Censorship is only going to protect us against what they deem abhorrent for four years, but the real world is a different place. Lest the old traditions fail, throw open the Hovey murals!