In 1923 Edwin Howland Blashfield (MIT 1869) began work on a series of murals in the main hall of Walker Memorial, the student union built by alumni in memory of MIT’s third president, Francis Amasa Walker. The idea of decorating the hall was conceived by MIT’s Treasurer, Everett Morss (MIT 1885), who also gave the funds to make it possible.
The murals, in what is now called Morss Hall, consist of five allegorical panels illustrating the role of education in society with particular emphasis on science and engineering. The largest panel occupies the middle section of the north wall and is flanked by smaller panels. In the central panel, shown above, the seated figure of Alma Mater (Latin for “nourishing mother,” referring to the school that one has attended) holds a symbol of Victory in her right hand while her left hand touches the seal of MIT. To her right is a personification of the acquisition of knowledge by books, balanced on the left by a personification of learning by experiment. The figures saluting Alma Mater with raised hands symbolize various branches of knowledge: Agriculture, Biology, Chemistry, Design, Electricity, Geology, History, Mathematics, Metallurgy, and Physics. A vision of MIT by the Charles River fills the bottom portion of the composition.
Two additional small panels on the south wall embody science and humanity. The left panel depicts two gas-emitting jars: the one on the left gives forth beneficial gases, representing the possibilities for progress that chemistry (and science in general) offers humanity; the one on the right emits harmful gases, representing the dangers inherent in science ungoverned by wisdom. The “Dogs of War” snarl behind the jar of evil gases. The right panel shows a mother and her children being guided by knowledge and imagination through the darkness of chaos into the brightness of an enlightened era.
Edwin Howland Blashfield was a highly regarded artist who won the Gold Medal of the National Academy of Design in 1934. His other commissions included decorating the Dome of the Library of Congress. He painted the MIT murals in six sections because of space limitations in his studio. Walker Memorial’s walls were covered with a thick coating of lead and varnish to receive the paintings. The canvas sections were slowly and carefully unrolled onto this prepared surface and became permanently fixed after the preparation dried. The north wall murals were mounted in 1924; those on the south wall were installed in 1930.
The Blashfield murals are not unique in their allegorical representation of Alma Mater surrounded by symbols of knowledge. Similar murals, part of a trend in university decoration in the early twentieth century, can be found, for example, at Yale (“Alma Mater,” by Frances Savage, in the Sterling Library, 1932) and the University of Chicago (“Masque of Youth,” by Jesse Arms Botke, in Ida Noyes Hall, 1918). Additional information about Blashfield, the Blashfield murals, and other arts at MIT can be found in the collections of the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.
Walker Student Staff 50th anniversary brochure commemorating the Blashfield murals
More mural images
Object of the month - June 2009
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