High on the wall as we enter the Westhampton Beach Post Office from Main Street is a mural signed by the artist and dated 1942. Obvious now to everyone is the creeping disintegration of the upper part of the wall that sustains the painting, deteriorating as the result of leaks.
The painting belongs to a well-documented tradition of the 1930s and early 1940s whereby the U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts sponsored paintings for the decoration of government buildings. That program provided welcome employment for artists during the Depression. Many well-known painters—Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston—were employed in these programs. Other artists were lost to history, while others—Sol Wilson, painter of the post office mural for example—had solid and impressive careers without achieving worldwide fame. Wilson lived from 1893 to 1974; he was a prize-winning painter and teacher, a specialist in coastal landscapes.
The post office was constructed in 1940-41 and its mural was installed a year later. The painting depicts a composite scene of recreational activities indigenous to life at the seashore—tennis, swimming, golf and hunting—and although not particularly imaginative, it was certainly appropriate to the defining vacation atmosphere of eastern Long Island.
Wilson was born in Vilno, Russia (today Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1892 and came to the United States in 1901. His family settled in New York City. His father was a lithographer and Wilson was determined to become an artist. He studied at the Cooper Union Art School and the National Academy of Design with well-known painters George Bellows and Robert Henri. Later he became a teacher of art and taught at—among other places—the American Artists School and the Art Students League. In the late 1930s the great American artist Jacob Lawrence was one of his students.
Wilson was particularly interested in marine and coastal subjects and made frequent painting trips to places like Provincetown and Rockport, Massachusetts. In the 1930s and 1940s, his award-winning work was exhibited in several museums including the National Academy of Design in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the St. Louis Art Museum. In the official list of places in which his paintings can be found—for example, in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian—we can be pleased to also find “Westhampton, N.Y.”
In 2006 a prominent and well-illustrated article by John Rather in the Long Island section of the Sunday New York Times (May 21, 2006, p. 16) was devoted to the subject of this kind of painting and was titled “Seeing the Big Pictures. Dozens of Murals from the W.P.A. Years Can Still be Viewed Around Long Island if You Know Where to Look.”
Although most of the murals cited in the article are found in Nassau County, Wilson’s “Outdoor Sports” in the Westhampton Beach Post Office is mentioned in the second paragraph. Rather points out that it “fits neatly into the ‘American scene’ theme prescribed by the government although it makes no reference to the 1938 hurricane, a defining moment in Westhampton Beach history that was then a fresh memory.” Rather also informs us that this one was the last of the New Deal murals. Wilson died in New York City in 1974.
The disintegration of the wall is on its way to destroying Wilson’s mural. Our village has a painting of historical distinction, the work of a known American artist of documented reputation. It would be a shameful failure to allow it to disappear as the result of carelessness, lack of awareness and lack of civic pride.
ISABELLE HYMANProfessor Emerita,Department of Art HistoryNew York University