Decorating Gilded Mansions
“[T]wo architects came to my studio and asked me to do some sketches for them for a large
decoration to be done on canvas for a house under construction in Newton. It was a frieze of
figures: they wanted especially children, not nude, between four and ten years old,
in historical dress if possible.”
After settling into his new life in Boston as a teacher, painter, and stained glass designer, Tommaso Juglaris continued to have hopes of obtaining work as a muralist. Trends in late nineteenth-century American life seemed favorable. A rather reserved or restrained American aesthetic, informed by the nation’s colonial and Puritan heritage, was giving way to a more exuberant visual style, particularly in the decoration of public and private buildings. The murals respectively executed by New York artist John La Farge at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square (1873) and by Boston artist William Morris Hunt at the New York State Capitol (1878) had piqued interest in mural painting, generally. Meanwhile, there was a building boom going on and Gilded Age mansions, intended to conspicuously display the wealth of their owners, needed decoration. Why not grand murals or at very least friezes to decoratively rim the upper walls of a room? The overall situation seemed made to order for Juglaris. With his experience decorating the churches and palaces of the Old World, he was an excellent candidate to fill any domestic demand for murals and friezes in Boston.
Juglaris’s first frieze commission was for the Prescott Mansion in Newton, Massachusetts (1882), across from the present-day campus of Boston College. This was followed by a similar commission at the Barnes (today Barnes-Hiscock) Mansion in Syracuse, New York, where Donald MacDonald had a stained glass commission of his own. Shortly thereafter, in 1883, Juglaris won—over fourteen other contestants—a competition to decorate the Music Room of Massachusetts Governor Oliver Ames’s new Back Bay home, at that time the most opulent residence in Boston. Juglaris also painted friezes for the nearby Commonwealth Avenue residence of Dr. Homer M. Jernegan. In honor his client’s medical profession, Juglaris painted cherubs preparing medicines. Other commissions for murals or friezes in Boston residences, as later noted by the Boston Sunday Post in April 1908, came from the Martin Brimmer family, the Hollingsworth family, who owned a paper mill, and the Schirmer family, founders and proprietors of the Boston Music Company, a publishing house.
“Mr. Thomas Juglaris,” wrote one reviewer upon seeing the sketches for the Ames mansion, “has no superior in this country as a decorative designer where the human figure is concerned.” Juglaris was further touted as an artist “whose genius and power as a decorative artist rivals that of Jules Lefebvre,” who was another acclaimed Paris Salon painter well-known to Americans. Equally flattering, the Boston Evening Transcript, went so far as to say that Juglaris’s fine decorative cartoons for frieze and mural work showed “what poor [William Morris] Hunt tried to do.”
In size and subject-matter, none of Juglaris’s friezes in Boston and Syracuse were substantial. America’s taste for more expansive mural work, whether in private residences or public buildings, was just beginning. Nevertheless, the quality of Juglaris’s work helped set a standard for what could and would be done in the future and allowed him to begin spreading his wings as the muralist he always wanted to be.
Accomplishing 'What Poor Hunt Tried to Do'
For almost a quarter of a century, William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) was Boston’s foremost artist. Born in Vermont to a wealthy, socially prominent family, Hunt was raised abroad in Switzerland, Italy, and France where, thanks to his mother’s determination, he had access to Europe’s best art teachers. In Paris, Hunt enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, studying under Thomas Couture. Also influential in Hunt’s artistic development were the French painter Jean-Francois Millet and the practices of the Barbizon School, famous for its landscapes. In 1855, Hunt returned to the United States and settled in Boston. He soon became a popular portrait painter. But from his easel also emerged masterly landscape and genre paintings. Among Bostonians Hunt encouraged appreciation for the avant-garde art trends he had encountered in Paris, represented by the works of Millet and Claude Monet. When a Harvard professor criticized in print an exhibition of such works at Boston’s Athenaeum, a private library and cultural center serving the city’s elite, Hunt was quick to offer a withering rebuke: “It is not our fault that we inherit ignorance in art but we are not obliged to advertise it.”
One of Hunt’s most ambitious projects was a pair of allegorical murals for the main Assembly Room or legislative chamber of the New York State Capitol Building in Albany, New York. Respectively entitled The Flight of the Night and The Discoverer, each mural was 45 feet long. Unfortunately, painted on highly porous sandstone walls, the murals rapidly began to flake due to moisture damage. In addition, Assembly Room structural problems forced the reengineering of its vaulted ceiling, dropping it down four feet, which obscured major portions of Hunt’s murals. A heart-sick Hunt gave up plans to execute additional murals for the Assembly Room. Not long afterwards, Hunt, still combatting depression because of the failure of the Assembly Room project, drowned off the Isles of Shoals. Suicide was suspected.
Tommaso Juglaris arrived in Boston only a year after Hunt’s tragic death. The respect for Thomas Couture and other French artists already generated by Hunt redounded to Juglaris’s benefit. Juglaris effectively enhanced his own credibility in Boston by wearing the mantle of a disciple to Couture, plus someone thoroughly familiar with contemporary French art trends as represented by the diverse work of Jean Francois Millet and Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Even more flattering, Juglaris was perceived by some of Boston’s art cognoscenti as Hunt’s worthy successor in the role of muralist and frieze painter. In contrast to Hunt and in keeping with then-current practice in France, however, Juglaris executed all of his frieze and mural commissions on canvases that were subsequently affixed to building walls, rather than painting directly on plaster or stone surfaces. The result was completed work less vulnerable to the deterioration that had bedeviled Hunt’s murals at the New York Statehouse.