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Art History: The Story Behind the “American Progress” Mural at Rockefeller Center

By Jane LernerMay 5 2015
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It's a famous story: In 1932, the Rockefellers commissioned the famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, to create a mural in the lobby of their flagship 30 Rockefeller building. Abby Rockefeller, wife of John Jr., had been a longtime fan of Rivera's; just a year earlier, the Museum of Modern Art, which she cofounded, had presented a major retrospective of his work. But as the artist neared completion of his massive Man at the Crossroads, John Jr. and his son Nelson were shocked to find an image of Lenin prominently displayed at the center of the mural. The Rockefellers demanded that he paint over the offending portrait; when Rivera refused, the Rockefellers fired him, and ultimately, had the mural destroyed. To replace it, they called on another popular muralist of the time, Spanish artist José Maria Sert. His 16-foot-high, 41-foot-long mural, American Progress, a vast allegorical scene depicting the development of America over three centuries, was the result, and remains the focal point of the building’s lobby to this day.

Who was José Maria Sert?

Sert (also known as Josep Maria Sert) was born in Barcelona in 1874, the son of an affluent textile merchant. After studying art in Rome, he moved in 1899 to Paris, where he fell in with Les Nabis, a group of influential decorative artists that included Pierre Bonnard, Éduard Vuillard and Maurice Denis. A bon vivant, he married (and later divorced to marry the young sculptress Isabelle Roussadana Mdivani) the renowned beauty, Misia Godebska, a sought-after portrait model whose salon would become a gathering place for the leading artists the time. Their close friends included the writers Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and the designer Coco Chanel.

Other Pieces by the Artist

By 1910, Sert had begun to turn his focus to large-scale work. He began collaborating with Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, creating elaborate sets for his Ballets Russes, and soon became an in-demand muralist throughout Europe and in the United States (he decorated the Royal Palaces of Spain as well as the homes of the wealthy elite, including financial titans Baron Rothschild and Philip Sassoon, and American oilman, Joshua Cosden). Just prior to the Rockefeller Center commission, Sert created murals for New York’s Waldorf Astoria (in the large dining room that became known as the “Sert Room”); later, he painted the walls and ceilings of the Council Chamber of the League of Nations (now the United Nations) in Geneva, which some consider his finest paintings.

What happened to José Maria Sert?

Despite a highly successful career, Sert fell into obscurity after his death in 1945. His disappearance from art reviews is probably due in part to his later-in-life outspoken support of fascist leader General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and the friendship he continued to have with him after Franco became dictator of Spain in 1939. Not much is written about Sert today, and little attention is paid to his artwork. However, a three-year restoration process to remove decades of dirt as well as varnish that had been applied to American Progress and Sert’s other murals (which appear on the lobby ceiling and hallways of 30 Rock) was completed in 2010. The result was a spectacular return to the “artist’s original vision”—and the chance for José Maria Sert to live on in his work.

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