Murals and Friezes

This exhibit features images of the murals and friezes in Milne Hall, Room 200. For much of its history, this room served as the library for the Milne School, a model junior and senior high school where students at the university practiced teaching. David Cunningham Lithgow created these murals in 1935 for the Milne School, and in 1929, Bertel Thorvaldsen created the friezes. The images of the murals and friezes are courtesy of the Milne Class of 1961.

Exploration of the Artwork in Milne 200

Research and Writing by: Charlotte Ashley, Heather Christensen, Chrissy Focken, Mikayla Pabon, and Amanda Pagan

Edited by: Amy Bloch, Heather Christensen, Sarah R. Cohen (contributing editor)

View the full report

The Mahikan Indian People

“the Mahikan Indian People Lived on Both Sides of the Hudson River.”

The Indigenous group that Lithgow calls “the Mahikan Indian People” lived along the Hudson River long before the arrival of European explorers and settlers. They called themselves Muh-he-conneok, meaning the People of the Waters That are Never Still. When the Dutch set up trading posts in the area, they found this name hard to pronounce and renamed the tribe “Manhigan” which was the Mahican word for one of their most important clans, the Wolf. Eventually, the English tweaked the name further to Mahican or Mohican; the latter became most popular after James Fenimore Cooper published his famous novel The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. These English names tend to be used interchangeably today, although here the name Mahican is used throughout.

The Mahicans relied on agriculture, mainly corn, for food and supplemented their diet by hunting and fishing. After Henry Hudson sailed upriver to Albany under a Dutch flag in 1609, the Dutch set up trading posts in the area. They were more concerned with profit than settlement and quickly established a mutually beneficial relationship with the Mahicans. The Mahicans traded beaver pelts for guns and useful tools and enjoyed an influential relationship with the Dutch. However, this relationship increased tensions with the Mohawk as the two tribes competed for dwindling beaver stock and top placement in the eyes of the Dutch traders. The Mahicans had the upper hand initially, but over the years were overtaken in trading opportunities by the Mohawk and turned to land sales as an alternative. When the Dutch were replaced by the English in 1664, the remaining Mahicans were unable to secure the same influential relationship with the new settlers.

The main inaccuracy in Lithgow’s representation is that this idyllic scene ignores the complexities of Mahican history in the region, most notably the Mahicans’ ongoing conflicts with other tribes, primarily the Iroquois. Even before the arrival of the settlers, Mahicans placed their focus on protection and maintaining their place in the local hierarchy. The only potential sign of the Mahicans’ warrior culture is the inclusion of arrowheads along the scene’s border. However, given Lithgow’s preference for picturesque generalization over human conflict, these are likely intended as references to hunting, not war. The remainder of the iconography in this panel – the pottery and needlework within the scene as well as the corn and wampum in the border – heighten the effect of a peaceful tableau. This painting immediately sets the stage for Lithgow’s other depictions of Indigenous people according to simple, “noble savage” stereotypes.

- Heather Christensen

In the Year 1609 Henry Hudson sailed His Vessel

“In the Year 1609 HENRY HUDSON sailed His Vessel the Half Moon Up this River to the present site of Albany, September 18th.”

In this panel, Lithgow depicts his version of Henry Hudson sailing into Albany on September 19 (not the 18th as it says in the title), 1609. Hudson was English but sailed on behalf of the Dutch. He was looking for the Northwest Passage, which was a legendary shortcut to Asia. He was supposed to be looking for the Passage farther north, but winds, storms, and a near mutiny had forced him to abandon that path. Instead, he came up the river that was later named for him and ended in the region that would become known as Albany. After his stop in Albany, Hudson turned around and abandoned his search. He realized the river was too shallow and would not lead to Asia.

The primary record we have of this voyage is the journal kept by mate Robert Juet. In his writings, he recounts numerous fights with tribes along the coast, drunkenness, killing, and a kidnapping. The crew of the Half Moon had negative attitudes regarding Indigenous people. Most tribes along the coast had witnessed their members being seized as slaves by the Europeans, so they were naturally wary and hostile towards Hudson and his crew. However, the Mahicans lived farther inland and were not yet used to European aggression. They were friendly with Hudson, and Juet reported a peaceful trading interaction with the Mahicans: “The people of the Countrie came flocking aboord [sic], and brought us Grapes, and Pompions, which wee bought for trifles. And many brought us Bevers skinnes, and Otters skinnes, which wee bought for Beades, Knives, and Hatchets. So we rode there all night.”1

Lithgow’s painting highlights the Dutch connection to Hudson and the Mahicans. The Dutch flag is presented on the border along with several red lions, which were depicted on the royal coat of arms of the House of Nassau. As mentioned in the previous panel description, the Mahicans had a complicated history with the Dutch. However, here that relationship is shown in a positive, non-threatening light. The Mahicans did enjoy influence with the Dutch, but it was a calculated, profit-driven relationship. Ultimately there was significant conflict with other tribes and settlers because of the Dutch drive for profit.

Additionally, Lithgow’s decision to focus on Hudson’s “discovery” of the Hudson River is part of a problematic trend to erase hundreds of years of Indigenous history that predates European exploration. The Mahicans had been living on the river long before Henry Hudson “discovered” it by accident. They had named the river Mahicannituck, which means “the river that flows two ways.” Hudson wasn’t even the first European explorer to sail on the river. Before him came the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1524. However, Dutch dominance was paramount, and the river is still known as the Hudson.

- Heather Christensen

Heyward and His Female Companions

“Heyward and his female companions witnessed this mysterious movement with secret uneasiness LAST OF THE MOHICANS CHAPTER VI.”

In Chapter 6 of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the character Heyward and two women companions, Alice and Cora, are being shown a cave hideout by their “Mohican” friends. All three of them are impressed by what they see, and they express their admiration to their Mohican guides. At the end of the scene, the women sleep peacefully while Heyward and Hawkeye (a Mohican) keep watch and talk long into the night.

In Lithgow’s painting, we see Heyward at right in a defensive position, seemingly protecting Alice and Cora from a Mohican figure who is gesturing at them. However, in the novel it is clear that Heyward and the women already know these Mohicans – why are they depicted in defensive positions if they are among friends? Indigenous people have been treated as threats or as unintelligent savages throughout America’s history, but the attitude of the 1930s may shine more light on Lithgow’s views specifically. During this decade, Hollywood was churning out its first Westerns (culminating in 1939’s hit movie, Stagecoach, which launched John Wayne into superstardom as a tough, manly, Indian-killer). In these films, Native Americans were the “bad guys,” and they were always put in their place by the most all- American figure possible: the Cowboy.

On a different end of the spectrum, the photographs of Edward S. Curtis, which had been published in the 1920’s, served to depict Native Americans as a pure, primitive people whose culture should be preserved. While Curtis intended to show his subjects in a positive light, his interpretation veered dangerously close to that of the stereotypical “noble savage.” Curtis not only omitted any context relating to the centuries of oppression endured by Native Americans, but believed his project was necessary to save what was left of their culture – placing himself in the role of a savior.

These conflicting images of Native Americans as threats to be erased or as “noble savages” no doubt affected the way Lithgow viewed the Indigenous communities of New York. It is also worth mentioning that, in Chapter 6 of The Last of the Mohicans, Cora is especially impressed by the Mohicans’ defenses in the cave. She asks aloud if skin color even matters at all – to which Heyward and Alice are silent. So, apparently, is Lithgow.

- Heather Christensen

Albany as a Trading Post About 1685

“ALBANY AS A TRADING POST about 1685. Outside Of the Stockade the Indians Traded furs for Silver Ornaments, Trinkets, and Cloth.”

The trading post depicted in this panel is most likely Fort Frederick, which was built by the English to replace the Dutch Fort Orange in 1676. It was located at the top of State Street Hill and was originally a wooden stockade. One of its main purposes was as fortification against hostile Indigenous tribes, especially the Mohawk.

The Mahicans traded with the English and did their best to maintain a friendly relationship with them; however, they did not enjoy the same influence they had experienced with the Dutch. By 1685, Mahicans had been forced to sell or abandon most of their lands along the Hudson, had been badly defeated by the Mohawks, and their population had fallen drastically. In addition, the fur they had traded with was now in alarmingly short supply.

In this painting, Lithgow focuses on a pleasant trade for “trinkets.” This plays into the old narrative of Indigenous people as naïve and easily tricked, giving up valuable items for cheap baubles. It’s also inaccurate. The Mahicans needed guns and useful items like metalwares and currency. The focus on trinkets could be Lithgow’s way of referencing the Mahican’s fall from influence, but it’s doubtful given his conflict-free lens and the peaceful demeanor of the figures in the painting. Regardless, the Mahicans are shown in an idyllic and simplistic light despite the hardships they had encountered by this time. Apart from one Mahican leaning casually on his gun, there is once again no reference to the ways in which the Mahicans had been negatively affected by settlers, trade, and war.

The attitudes of Lithgow’s own time clearly influenced his view of Indigenous people and culture. But he also ignored positive changes in social consciousness. After the displacement, forced relocations, and nineteenth-century boarding schools established to scrub native culture out of Indigenous children, positive changes in treatment began taking place. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act passed, granting citizenship to all American Indians. In 1928, a document titled “The Problem of Indian Administration” was published and acted as a blueprint for reform of government policies. And in 1933, just before Lithgow began these panels, John Collier was named Commissioner of Indian affairs. He advocated for Indigenous people to be able to learn and practice their culture and was responsible for the Indian New Deal, which was meant to slow assimilation, improve social services, and support a multicultural nation.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, there was a general push to backtrack on the discriminatory policies of the past and save native culture. While largely positive in intent, the impact of this change often manifested as a “white savior complex” with people like the photographer Curtis believing that Indigenous people were simple beings in need of saving. All of this historical nuance was ignored by Lithgow. He went the Curtis route of romantic idealism and let none but the photogenic moments into his work.

- Heather Christensen

An Incident of Anti-Rentism

“An Incident of Anti-Rentism Tenants Showing Discontent, Cart to the Front Door of the MANOR Their Annual Rent 1838.”

The mural An Incident of Anti-Rentism, 1838 was completed in November 1935.2 The subject of the painting appears to be an anti-rent protest, a movement that had been slowly building from as early as the period after the American Revolution. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before owner-operated farms, the tenant system upheld that tenant families would pay annual rent on long-term leased estates. The distribution of these estates increased starting in the 1730s. By the 1810s there were about two million acres of leasehold estates spread across sixteen counties, and by the 1840s leasehold tenants made up approximately one-tenth of New York’s population. The relationship between landlords and estate farmers was complex. Tenants were free to leave at any time, but they were restricted on their use of the land, as landlords typically reserved all mineral and manufacturing rights as well as part of the sale price when a farm was sold. Tenants were unhappy with this system, but landlords bought tenant loyalty by being lenient on rent payments, assisting poor tenants, and contributing to community institutions. In return, tenants surrendered to their superiors by publicly proclaiming their loyalty and voting as they were directed. This strange entanglement survived the anti-landlord rebellions of the 1750s, 1760s, 1790s, and 1810s but broke down between 1819 and 1840. Landlords began splitting their assets between multiple heirs and were no longer marrying to merge family fortunes. This resulted in a loss of income, which made proprietors stricter about regulations. They stopped tolerating standing-timber theft and often sued for late rent payments. Some counties replaced long-term leases with limited contracts of between one and five years, cutting off tenants’ economic security. Tenants responded with boycotts, challenging landlords’ titles to their estates, and dragging out court proceedings.

Although this mural is set in 1838, a well-organized movement only emerged around 1839. The Van Rensselaer estate, as seen in the mural, holds particular significance to the movement, as Stephan Van Rensselaer III instructed that his executors pay his $400,000 debt by collecting owed rent from tenants. If his executors failed, Van Rensselaer’s heirs would inherit the debt. Stephan Van Rensselaer IV began persecuting tenants in an effort to collect the money.3 When negotiation failed, the anti-rent movement turned violent. The gathering as seen in Lithgow’s mural does not appear to be overtly violent, though it is curiously described as violent in a published commentary on Lithgow’s murals when they were installed.4

- Charlotte Ashley

Governor Thomas Dongan

“Governor Thomas Dongan He Granted the Charter to Albany on July 22nd, 1686.”

Thomas Dongan was born in Ireland in 1634 and became the first Royal Governor of New York. Although he spent little, if any, time in Albany itself, in 1686 he established Albany as a city and granted its City Charter. In this painting, we see him signing the Charter. He is probably surrounded by his advisors, who included Robert Livingston and Pieter Schuyler (the first mayor of Albany and the great-uncle of Philip Schuyler, who became the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton). The charter incorporated the City of Albany, gave fur traders many rights, set city boundaries, established municipal government, and gave the city corporation special privileges. These included: the right to trade and negotiate with local tribes, which was still an important part of the economy, and a requirement to buy land at Schaghticoke and Ticonderoga.

Schaghticoke was both the name of the Schaghticoke tribe and the place where they lived. The land was a refuge for Indigenous people fleeing colonists and the second Pequot War. Under the terms of the charter, the Schaghticoke land would be “acquired” from the Schaghticoke tribe. However, there were complications with the purchase and decades of raids as a result. The Schaghticoke tribe, like other tribes, endured a long history of broken treaties and relocation.

- Heather Christensen

The Courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler

“the Courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler.”

This painting depicts one of Albany’s most famous figures, Alexander Hamilton, wooing his future wife at one of Albany’s most famous landmarks, the Schuyler Mansion. Elizabeth Schuyler came from a wealthy, influential Albany family, and this panel highlights the beauty and luxury of privileged colonial life. The Schuyler Mansion is large and well-kept, the gardens are lush and flowering, and the people are well-dressed and bear pleasant expressions – including a man in the midground to the left of Hamilton, an apparent slave and the only Black man in the painting.

Not only is this figure the only Black man in this panel, he is the only Black person depicted in any of Lithgow’s Milne paintings. And he is serving white people as an enslaved man. The Schuyler family were the third largest slaveholders in Albany (the second largest were Elizabeth’s brother-in-law’s family, the Rensselaers).

As for Alexander Hamilton, his role as a slaveholder is often glossed over, but he was certainly complicit. Six months after marrying Elizabeth, Hamilton purchased an enslaved woman to help his wife establish her household. He also assisted other members of the Schuyler family in buying their slaves and handled the legal paperwork for these transactions. The elegant livery Lithgow gives the man in this painting is perhaps meant to suggest that the Schuylers were kind to their slaves – but was that actually the case? While there isn’t much concrete information, we do know that Philip Schuyler opposed manumission (the legal release of slaves before slavery was outlawed), and even Hamilton went back and forth on the issue depending on political strategy. In addition, several enslaved people attempted to escape Schuyler land over the years. We don’t know why, but we can be certain that life as a slave to the Schuyler family was not always as pleasant as this panel suggests.

Lithgow’s painting is a romantic view first and foremost. It is focused on the love between these two beautiful people who would put Albany on the map. In this vision, the slave is well dressed, perhaps happy, loyal, and compatible with his surroundings. Lithgow is not including him to direct our focus to the oppressive side of history. The painting is lovely to look at, but it presents a frustratingly simple view of wealthy colonial life. In this panel, Lithgow relegates Black history in Albany to one depiction of an enslaved man who serves the principals. Slavery ended long before Lithgow painted this scene in 1939 – why did he emphasize the “happy, loyal slave” role here? What does that say about Lithgow’s beliefs and priorities and, more broadly, those of his contemporaries, especially his patrons and viewers?

- Heather Christensen

The Anti-Ratification Riot in Albany, 1788

“the Anti-Ratification Riot in Albany, 1788.”

Debates took place across the country in the years leading up to the ratification of the Constitution. Federalists and Antifederalists held meetings and marches to earn support. In 1788, Federalists were a minority in New York, though they did have popular support in most cities. Albany was the only American city that did not support the Constitution. The primary concern of the Antifederalists was the need for amendments, particularly a bill of rights. The eighty-five essays we now know as The Federalist Papers were addressed to the “Considerate Citizens of the State of New York” in hopes of convincing New Yorkers to support the federal Constitution. A ratification convention met at Poughkeepsie in June. New York’s Federalist leaders proposed a formula for ratifying the Constitution “in full confidence” and stated that amendments would be made later. A split developed among the Antifederalists in New York when New Hampshire ratified the Constitution against all expectations. Concern grew as citizens wondered whether New York would participate in the new federal union. Some delegates, including all delegates from Albany, were absolutists, but others were willing to accept the compromise.5

The riot pictured here is a riot that took place in Albany on July 4th, 1788. When Federalists in New York received the news that Virginia had ratified the Constitution, they proposed to hold a procession through the streets in celebration. They gave up on the idea upon remonstrance from Antifederalists. The next day a group of about fifty Antifederalists marched through the streets of Albany to a vacant lot and proceeded to fire thirteen guns and burn a copy of the Constitution. Appalled, Federalists assembled a procession and marched through the streets of Albany until they were stopped by a large group, presumably of Antifederalists. The large group demanded the Federalists turn around. They refused and battled each other with whatever weapons they had – bayonets, clubs, swords, and even stones, which, as shown in the mural, they launched toward each other. Eventually, the Federalists, because of their greater numbers, overpowered the Antifederalists and they were forced to retreat. Many of the Antifederalists fled to a nearby house where they attempted to make a second stand, but the Federalists attacked the house and many members on both sides were severely wounded. On July 26th, the final vote took place, 30 for ratification and 27 against. New York State became the eleventh and last state to ratify the Constitution before it took effect, with North Carolina and Rhode Island not accepting until after the new government took office.6

- Charlotte Ashley

Robert Fulton’s Clermont Arrived in Albany, Sept. 5th, 1807

“Robert Fulton’s Clermont Arrived in Albany, Sept. 5th, 1807.”

Robert Fulton’s Clermont Arrived in Albany, Sept. 5th, 1807 by David Cunningham Lithgow depicts the steamboat’s trip up the Hudson river, an event that marked the first successful use of steam propulsion for commercial travel. The boat was not called the Clermont in 1807 but was instead referred to as the North River Steamboat. After the first trip up the Hudson the steamboat routinely traveled up and down the river, offering transport to the public for a fare. In the initial trips there were very few passengers on the Clermont due to the public’s apprehensions regarding the safety of steam propulsion and the possibility of boiler explosions. At the time there were many explosions as a result of the limited knowledge of the specific methods of working steam-propelled vessels. In the mural, Lithgow captures the reaction of the spectators onshore: they are excited and shocked at the sight of the steamboat passing by and its ability to travel upstream and against the wind. Mathematicians and scientists at the time did not believe Fulton’s attempts at implementing steam propulsion would be successful so there was a significant reaction from onlookers, as can be seen in the foreground on the left side of the painting. The depiction of the boat shows that the sails are not in use and therefore the vessel is not getting any advantage from the wind, but rather its speed was achieved solely through the use of the steam engine.

- Chrissy Focken

The Erie Canal’s First Boat Seneca Chief Arrived at Albany, Nov. 2nd, 1825

“The Erie Canal’s First Boat Seneca Chief Arrived at Albany, Nov. 2nd, 1825.”

The Erie Canal was completed in 1825 and connected the Great Lakes to Manhattan. At the time, it was the longest artificial waterway and the most important public works project in the United States. It not only opened access to the West, but it secured New York City’s place as an important, wealthy, commercial city. Governor Dewitt Clinton led the Grand Opening and rode on the first voyage from Buffalo to Manhattan. This maiden voyage was cause for much celebration. Crowds of enthusiastic New Yorkers waved the governor on at each stop along the way in what was seen as a victory for Manifest Destiny.

The boat used for the opening voyage was called the Seneca Chief. The Seneca are an Indigenous tribe originally from the Great Lakes area south of Lake Ontario. They were also the largest of the six tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy (or Six Nations). They have a rich history and culture that they are trying to preserve despite their displacement at the hands of the US government. The Seneca were known for being fierce and skilled at warfare, but also for their oratory and diplomacy skills. Today, their language is considered “at risk,” and tribal elders are fighting to ensure it doesn’t disappear altogether.

Using the Seneca as the name for a ship that would become a symbol of Manifest Destiny is ironic at best, implicitly violent at worst. Manifest Destiny was an idea that became popular in the 19th century. It held that the expansion of the United States throughout the continent of North America was justifiable, not unlike the belief in the divine right of kings in Europe. It was also seen as inevitable. The problem of pre-existing Indigenous nations was a pesky one, but easily solved by displacement and broken treaties. Today, we see Manifest Destiny as a problematic concept because it relied on a racist belief in white superiority to flourish. However, in the 19th century when the Erie Canal was completed, it was a thriving ideal.

In Lithgow’s painting, we see the Seneca Chief arriving in Albany on its way from Buffalo to Manhattan. Men and women are dressed in their finest for this special event and there is an air of celebration to the scene. The irony of naming a vessel after a tribe who were displaced by white settler advancement is unacknowledged.

- Heather Christensen

The Locomotive DeWitt Clinton First Trip Albany to Schenectady Sept. 24, 1831

“The Locomotive DeWitt Clinton First Trip Albany to Schenectady Sept. 24, 1831.”

Lithgow’s mural depicts the historic event of the locomotive DeWitt Clinton’s first trip from Albany to Schenectady on September 24th, 1831. A notable technological achievement, the locomotive was one of the first steam powered passenger trains in the United States. The Genesee Farmer published an article the week after the event on October 1st, 1831 describing the trip and stating that there were a total of ten cars, three of them attached to the locomotive and seven drawn by horse. The mural depicts the three cars attached to the train and depicts the horse drawn carriages on the right side of the painting. The article also describes the people present in the scene, including the governor, members of the Senate, the judges of district courts and the state Supreme Court, as well as citizens of New York City, Albany, and Schenectady. The focus of the painting is as much the lively depiction of the crowd of people as it is the depiction of the train. This event demonstrated the potential for steam travel in the Albany region to the people in attendance. It is likely that the basis of Lithgow’s decision to include a depiction of this event was that the development of steam travel in Albany marked the city as modern and a place of significance. Steam locomotives allowed for efficient travel and transport of goods, but they were very destructive to the environment. They contributed to pollution and required forests to be cut down to make room for the rails. The success of the use of the DeWitt Clinton showed people the possibility for fast efficient travel across the land and the ways that technology could be used to overcome nature, prompting a change in attitudes towards the land.

- Chrissy Focken

Normal School Building Corner of Lodge and Howard Sts. Albany N. Y. Erected 1849

"NORMAL SCHOOL BUILDING Corner of Lodge and Howard Sts. Albany N. Y. ERECTED 1849.”

In the 19th century, public schools were still relatively new in the United States. As they became more popular, special schools called Normal Schools were established to train new teachers. Established in 1844, the New York State Normal School was especially successful and drew a large number of students from all over rural New York. Soon, the school boasted 250 students, more than all three of the Normal Schools in Massachusetts combined. Both men and women were accepted (although they had separate entrances to the Lodge and Howard Street building, the school's first permanent home), but in the early days most of the students were men. By the end of the 1840s, that had changed, and women matched and then outnumbered their male counterparts. During the Civil War, the relative number of male students decreased further. By the time the war was over, women teachers were preferred and were considered “calmer, more patient, and better equipped to instill the values necessary for a successful republic into their students.”7

The belief that women are naturally more nurturing than men is not a new one. For centuries, it has been used to keep women in the home working exclusively as caretakers for their children. It is also what makes the jobs of teacher, nurse, or nanny considered by many to be “women’s work.” The role of teacher was certainly one of the only respectable jobs available to a woman in the 19th century. Even in the 1930s, when women were working a much wider variety of jobs, old beliefs about what was “women’s work” vs. “men’s work” died hard. In Lithgow’s painting of the Albany Normal School, the school building dominates the scene. There are some Albany citizens in the foreground, and the women are all depicted in traditional female roles: arm in arm with men or looking after children. If you look carefully, you can see that there are mostly women at the entrance to the school. While there is nothing wrong with women wanting to be teachers, this is the only scene Lithgow painted that depicts any kind of working women. Even in the 19th century, women worked in factories and as activists. By the time Lithgow painted these panels, women had already flooded the workforce during World War I, been appointed to government positions by President Roosevelt, and had been accounted for in the New Deal. It is also telling that in his only painting of women workers, the women teachers themselves are depicted at such a small scale – almost unnoticeable. Instead, it is the building where they worked that takes center stage.

- Heather Christensen

In the Year 1910, June 30th Glenn Curtiss Flew From Van Rensselaer Island, Albany, N.Y. To Governor’s Island, New York.

“in the YEAR 1910, JUNE 30th GLENN CURTISS Flew From Van Rensselaer Island, Albany, N.Y. To Governor’s Island, New York.”

Perhaps the most unusual element of this mural comes not from the painted scene but from the painting’s inscription. Lithgow’s inscription lists Glenn H. Curtiss’ flight as taking place on June 30th, when it actually took place a month earlier, on May 29th, with the news report coming out the next day. The New York Times of May 30th, 1910 records Curtiss’ historic flight in fervent detail over six pages.8 It is particularly interesting that Lithgow erred in specifying the date because he took pride in doing most of his own research to ensure that historical subjects in his paintings were portrayed accurately.9 The misidentification of this fairly rudimentary fact speaks to the inaccuracy of Lithgow’s artwork. While it is true that technology has come a long way in providing easy access to historical records, it is still somewhat surprising that this mistake was made considering the subject was a relatively recent event that took place in Albany and an event that Lithgow himself lived through.

In 1910, The New York World offered $10,000 to any pilot who could complete a 152-mile journey before October 10th, 1910. The rules permitted two stops in either direction. Many famous names were shooting for the prize. Among them was aviator Glenn H. Curtiss, known for piloting the first publicly witnessed air flight in 1908 and winning a $5000 prize at an air meet in France in 1909. Curtiss built the airplane himself. It had a single propeller operating 350 pounds of driving power through air resistance. The 50-horsepower engine was the most powerful one he had built to date and marked his departure from air-cooled to water-cooled systems. Still, the added weight prompted him to add two sealed metal drums covered in rubberized silk beneath each wing and cork-filled bags to the fuselage to keep the aircraft afloat if it fell into the river. With this unique adaptation, Curtiss essentially constructed the world’s first seaplane.10 The biplane measured only thirty feet wide and thirty feet and one inch from extreme front to extreme rear, weighing a mere 1,004 pounds. On May 29th, Curtiss took off from Van Rensselaer Island with a letter from Albany mayor James B. McEwan addressed to New York City mayor William J. Gaynor. This letter became America’s first airmail. Despite a couple of unexpected hiccups – including relying on nearby motorists to refuel his plane when the intended supplier didn’t show up, and almost being ejected from the plane during intense winds at the Hudson Highlands – Curtiss landed safely on Governor’s Island. His two-hour-and-fifty-one-minute flight marked the first flight between two major American cities.

- Charlotte Ashley

1943 Capitol Hill Modern Albany 1943 Three Forms of Architecture


Capitol Hill Modern Albany 1943 Three Forms of Architecture depicts a view of three buildings in downtown Albany, including the New York State Department of Education Building on the right, the Alfred E. Smith Office building in the center, and the New York State Capitol Building on the left. The viewpoint is from the corner of Hawk Street and Washington Avenue looking west. Also depicted is West Capitol Park and the crowded sidewalks of people and the cars and buses passing by on Washington Avenue. The mural focuses on representing the forms of architecture of these buildings and architectural achievements in Albany. The construction of the New York State Capitol Building was finished in 1899. It was built in the Romanesque style by architects Thomas Fuller, Leopold Eidlitz, and Isaac Perry. The Alfred E. Smith building is an Art Deco skyscraper that was finished in 1930. The building was mostly built by the state architect Sullivan W. Jones and was completed by William Haugaard. Sullivan W. Jones also worked on the State Education Building and West Capitol Park, both featured in the mural. The Department of Education Building was finished in 1912. It was designed by Henry Hornbostel in the Beaux-Arts architecture style which included a resurgence in the popularity of the classical style in combination with Renaissance ideas. There is a sense of perspective created in the painting through the use of the orthogonal lines formed by Washington Avenue which recede back to a vanishing point. This instills in the viewer a sense of the vastness of Albany. The detail of the tree line along the West Capitol Park emphasizes these orthogonal lines and also communicates the modernity of Albany through the depiction of the repeated verticals of the meticulously planned out placement of the trees. The light around the top of the Alfred E. Smith building emphasizes its impressive height and the status that the building had upon its completion as the tallest building in between Buffalo and New York City.

- Chrissy Focken

Sculptural Friezes

descriptions by Amanda Pagan

Frieze 1

Centered on the river Tigris. A camel approaches the river, a young man fishes, merchants in a boat flee Alexander’s army, and the God of the River Tigris leans on an urn and holds rudder and stalk of wheat.

Frieze 1 represents people engaging in different activities along the banks of the Tigris River, personified by the God of the Tigris at the right edge. He is depicted as a bearded, nude man leaning on an urn with water flowing from it into the river, and he holds a rudder and wheat stalk. Next to him a group of men on a boat flee Alexander’s invading army.

Frieze 2

A young man drives sheep before the walls of Babylon on which is a vase of perfume, and a view of the hanging gardens. Imaging funded by the Milne School, Class of 1961.

Frieze 2 displays a shepherd herding a group of sheep against the walls of Babylon. In the background, there is a view of the hanging gardens and a group of figures interacting.

Frieze 3

Left, the shepherd’s family with more sheep, right, Babylonians bearing tribute to Alexander, incense, a horse, a chained lion and tiger.

Frieze 3 also represents sheep herding. A long, rectangular element separates the herders from the Babylonian procession, where figures bring a variety of goods as a tribute to Alexander. Animals, such as horses, lions, and tigers, are marched forward in a parade.

Frieze 4

A frieze depiction of horses brought as tribute to Alexander.

This procession continues in Frieze 4, where a group of dynamic figures is trying to control the horses as they walk.

Frieze 5a

The scene of the frieze from left to right: The vanquished advance to meet Alexander, heralds blowing a horns, men erecting an alter for burning perfume at Bagephanes’ orders , women scattering flower petals. Bagephanes was the keeper of the defeated Persian King Darius III’s treasure.

Friezes 5A-5C illustrate the rest of the procession that leads directly to Alexander and his army. On Frieze 5A, there is a depiction of trumpeters with a band of figures preparing an altar and scattering flower petals on the right side.

Frieze 5b

The scene of the frieze from left to right: Warriors surrendering, the Persian general Mazaeus (satrap or governor of Babylon for Darius III) and his five sons in supplication, lead by the Goddess of Peace.

Friezes 5A-5C illustrate the rest of the procession that leads directly to Alexander and his army. Frieze 5B displays, at left, three Babylonians soldiers and, in the center, Mazaeus, the governor of Babylon, with his children, all with hands outstretched as they beg for mercy from Alexander.

Frieze 5c

The scene of the frieze from left to right: Goddess of Peace, Alexander the Great standing on his chariot holding a scepter, two equerries and soldiers leading Alexander’s favorite horse Bucephalus.

Friezes 5A-5C illustrate the rest of the procession that leads directly to Alexander and his army. Frieze 5C depicts Alexander’s arrival in the center of the composition with the Goddess of Peace standing before his chariot, holding a cornucopia and olive branch. Alexander dominates the scene as he rushes into Babylon with his flowing drapery and army following behind him.

Frieze 6

The scene of the frieze from left to right: Hepaestion, a Macedonian general and Alexander’s closest colleague on horseback, followed by Parmenio, Philip II’s great general and a major cavalry general under Alexander in the Persian campaign, and Amyntas, a major Macedonian cavalry commander, both at the head of the Greek cavalry.

Friezes 6-9 portray Alexander’s cavalry and foot soldiers following Alexander’s entry into the city.

Frieze 7

The scene of the frieze of the Greek cavalry.

Friezes 6-9 portray Alexander’s cavalry and foot soldiers following Alexander’s entry into the city.

Frieze 8

The scene of the frieze of Greek foot soldiers.

Friezes 6-9 portray Alexander’s cavalry and foot soldiers following Alexander’s entry into the city.

Frieze 9

The scene of the frieze from left to right: A warrior leads an elephant loaded with booty and a Persian general with head bowed is guarded by a warrior. On the right are Greek warriors with horses and a warrior with shield pointing out the procession to the Danish artist Thorvaldsen who has portrayed himself in antique garb.

Friezes 6-9 portray Alexander’s cavalry and foot soldiers following Alexander’s entry into the city. Significantly, Frieze 9 displays Greek soldiers guiding an elephant that has an abundance of loot on its back. A Persian prisoner of war, his head bowed in a submissive manner, accompanies them.


  1. Robert Juet, Juet’s Journal of Hudson’s 1609 Voyage (New Netherland Museum, 2006), 593
  2. Arthur Thompson and John Winne, editors, “New Library Mural Painted by Artist David Lithgow; Milne Art on Exhibition,” Crimson and White: Senior News, 8 Nov. 1935, p. 1.
  3. Huston, Reeve. “Antirent Movement.” The Encyclopedia of New York State Edited by Peter Eisenstadt and Laura-Eve Moss, 1st ed., Syracuse University Press, 2005, pp. 90–92.
  4. Thompson and Winn, “New Library Mural,” 1.
  5. Edward Countryman, “United States Constitution Ratification,” The Encyclopedia of New York State, edited by Peter Eisenstadt and Laura-Eve Moss, 1st ed., (Syracuse University Press, 2005), pp. 1608–1609.
  6. Report of a fight in Albany between Federalists and Antifederalists, Freeman’s Journal, July 16, 1788 (The Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC00259.01, p1) as cited in “A Spotlight on a Primary Source by the Freeman's Journal: A Brawl between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, 1788.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
  7. Allen Ballard, ed., “The Albany Normal School,” University at Albany, Department of History.
  8. “Curtiss Flies, Albany to New York, At the Speed of 54 Miles an Hour,” The New York Times, 30 May 1910, pp. 1–6.
  9. Betty Barden, ed. “Lithgow Explains Murals in Interview,” Crimson and White: Senior News, 3 Mar. 1939, p. 2.
  10. Reed Sparling, “From Albany to NYC, Bravely Flying the Country's First Airmail,” Scenic Hudson, 9 Sept. 2021.