“The Father of The Elvehjem” James Watrous and His Murals

October 25th, 2018

By Jennifer Jiang

In honor of the International Artist Day, we would like to present American muralist and educator James Watrous (1908-1999). Watrous shared an almost seventy-year long affiliation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he started out as an undergraduate in the 1930s, continuing as a professor of art and art history from 1934 to 1976.

Title page of A century of capricious collecting, 1877-1970 : from the gallery in Science Hall to the Elvehjem Museum of Art.

Title page of A century of capricious collecting, 1877-1970 : from the gallery in Science Hall to the Elvehjem Museum of Art.

The UW community remembers Watrous as “The Father of The Elvehjem” for his significant role in establishing the Chazen Museum of Arts (known as the Elvehjem Museum of Art until 2005) in 1970. UWDC has been digitally preserving the Chazen (Elvehjem) Museum of Arts Publications, through collaborations with the Chazen Museum of Arts and the Kohler Art Library. In the former collection, two publications by Watrous are available: Hogarth and the shows of London and A century of capricious collecting, 1877-1970 : from the gallery in Science Hall to the Elvehjem Museum of Art. The latter tells of the 30 years Watrous spent helping to steward the slowly growing art collection around campus until it found at home at the Elvehjem.

Students relaxing in the Paul Bunyan Room in Memorial Union in 1950.

Students relaxing in the Paul Bunyan Room in Memorial Union in 1950.

Watrous created a number of works which one can still see on campus today. A few of the most popular pieces include The Story of Paul Bunyan, Ancient Commerce and The Library. The latter two are large mosaics made from thousands of glass pieces, featuring similar symbols of ancient elements— the sun, the moon, animals, and people. Ancient Commerce resides in Ingraham Hall (then Commerce Hall) since 1956, and tells  ancient trading stories from the Mediterranean sea. The Library is located by the entrance of Memorial Library (home to UWDC), expressing Watrous’ appreciation towards libraries’ educational role in society.

Today, a handful of Watrous’ works are available online at UW Digital Collections, specifically through UW-Madison Archives Images.

James Watrous completing his mosaic “Ancient Commerce” in Commerce/Ingraham Hall in 1956.

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