Alice Stallnecht murals on exhibit
By Florence Dwek
Spring has arrived in Houston,
and with it, two not entirely unrelated firsts for women: the Rev.
Helen M. Havens was ordained as
the first female Episcopal priest
in the city's history; and the religious murals of Alice Stallknecht
will be displayed at the Museum
of Fine Arts (beginning May 5) in
the first major showing of its kind
outside the artist's hometown of
Chatham, Cape Cod.
The very existence of a female
priest lends a new credence in and
respect for a woman's capacity to
lead and guide her community.
Her newly-gained status effectively undercuts the cliquish arrogance of an all-male clergy.
Stallknecht's true-to-life depiction of Christ, as the recognizable
portrait of a man from her own
village, restores a touch of humanism lacking in traditionally
idealized religious painting. Separated by time and space (Stallknecht died in 1973), each of these
women is thus concerned with
furthering the universality and accessibility of religious communication.
Stallknecht spent her life in the
small New England village of Chatham, and it is the Chatham villagers that she so faithfully incorporates into her religious allegories.
Although Stallknecht had studied
art early in life, her productive
painting years did not come about
until her early fifties. Family responsibilities and the hardships
imposed by the mental breakdown of her husband completely
destroyed any earlier creative opportunities for her.
Stallknecht created two murals,
done in oil on canvas, specifically for her local Congregational
church. The first of these, Christ
Preaching to the Multitude, is a
DETAIL FROM A STALLKNECHT MURAL
triptych done in 1931. Christ is
shown in the central panel standing in a rowboat with outstretched
hands, flanked by the men, women and children of Chatham in
the side panels. Each face is meant
to be a true portrait of an actual
The second mural, The Circle
Supper (1935-1943), consists of 18
separate panels of figure groups at
a traditional Wednesday night
church supper. The presence of
Christ is again the central motif,
showing him in the act of blessing
the bread for communion, surrounded by the members of the
In both murals, the artist couples the commonplace with the
mystical, and the present with the
past, to reflect the complete permeation of religious faith in
In 1945 Stallknecht carried out
another mural, more secular in
nature, entitled Everyman to His
Trade. Of considerable size, it
consists of 30 separate panels that
depict the working people of
Chatham at their respective trades,
all posed against the consistent
backdrop of the sea. The proud
and honest faces of these working
men and women are treated with
an almost Whitmanesque reverence.
The 150 figures to be found in all
three murals display a straightforward, rigid intensity of character that embodies the essence
of puritan ethics. Although each
figure is meant to be seen as an
individual, all are tied together by
the unifying forces of church and
community. As Lloyd Goodrich,
Director of the Whitney Museum
of Art, explains in the catalogue
exhibition, "With all its uncompromising realism, her art is fundamentally religious, filled with
the conviction of faith as a unifying force, an essential element
in daily life, a unifying spirit."
Whatever our personal religious beliefs, we may still share
with Alice Stallknecht the strong
faith she has so eloquently expressed in the cooperative efforts
of hardworking men and women
in communities like our own.
A New England Town: A Portrait By Alice Stallknecht (1880-
1973) will be on display at the
Museum of Fine Art's Upper
Brown Gallery May 5-June 5. From
there the exhibition will go on to
Cape Cod and Washington, D.C.
The accompanying catalogue is
available in the museum bookstore.
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PAGE 16 • MAY 1977 • HOUSTON BREAKTHROUGH