by Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — A large “Tribute to Vermont” mural by noted artist Paul Sample which measures 50 feet across and 8 feet high and was first installed in the lobby of the then-new National Life headquarters in Montpelier in 1961 will be taken down over the next few days in two sections, then rolled up, and subsequently removed from the building for long-term conservation.
As to what will happen to the painting after the conservation work — according to a National Life press release, the National Life Group has donated the mural to the Vermont Historical Society and plans call for the Historical Society “to reinstall it in a redesigned permanent exhibit at its Vermont History Museum in the Pavilion building in downtown Montpelier.
As explained during a September 13 press conference in the National Life lobby, since the mural was installed 55 years ago, time has taken its toll and art conservation experts have discovered dirt and grime on the surface of the paint, as well as small areas of paint loss and some damage where the mural may have been bumped into.
In addition to donating the painting to the Vermont Historical Society, the National Life Group will also provide financial support for its reinstallation at the Pavilion.
The Historical Society is currently studying exploratory concepts for redesigning the Vermont History Museum around the “Tribute to Vermont” mural. In the words of the National Life press release, “The mural will be the first display that visitors see upon entering the museum. Thousands of people visit the museum each year, including most Vermont schoolchildren.”
In 1961, then National Life chief executive officer and later governor Deane C. Davis wanted the mural to be symbolic both of Vermont and the nation.
As conceived by artist Paul Sample, the mural depicts more than 50 individual scenes, beginning with French explorer Samuel de Champlain who, in July 1609, became the first European to visit the lake that now bears his name
The march of history depicted in the mural includes explorers, an Indian, a woman plowing with a horse, men swinging axes, pounding anvils, scything fields. There’s a vital, colorful likeness of Vermont revolutionary hero Ethan Allen in a red tunic and tri-colored hat with a hard, determined look in his eye. One hand is a fist. The other hand holds a tankard. Animals are depicted throughout the canvas: cows, sheep, oxen. As time passes, we see the more familiar Vermont iconic images: a farmer milking, or hanging out taps for maple sugaring, a country schoolhouse and a white country church. Then on to activities of more modern times: a railroad train, machine tool making, a country fair. The mural comes to an end in the 1950s with the beginning of skiing and a college graduation scene.
There’s even a Morgan horse whose depiction drew a slight criticism from Deane Davis, a Morgan horse lover — who commented on the “set of its tail.”
Then there’s a likeness of Dr. Julius Dewey, National Life’s first president, astride a horse in front of the company’s first office in the Ellis Block on State Street in downtown Montpelier.
In accepting the mural from National Life, Vermont Historical Society’s executive director Stephen Perkins called the National Life gift “just incredible.” He said the Society “would conserve it, preserve it and make it accessible.”
He characterized the mural as “a conversation starter” that could cause schoolchildren and other visitors to ask such questions as: “Am I here?” That is, can I find myself in the mural? “Who’s in the mural?” and “How can we add to the story?”
About Paul Sample (From online sources)
Paul Sample (1896–1974) was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He attended Dartmouth College and graduated in 1921. At Dartmouth College he studied architecture. He was also a saxophonist and boxer. Eventually, he embrace painting and arts as his vocation.
At a time when his artistic career was on the rise he was invited to become artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College, a newly-created position. Sample was artist-in-residence when he painted the mural that was installed in the lobby of the new National Life building in 1961. He is often referred to as a “regional painter” or a “social realist” — “regional” because his painting often celebrated rural New England; “social realist” because his paintings in the 1930s show an awareness of the hardships and struggles that people experienced during the Great Depression.