Barry Faulkner – American Muralist (1881 – 1966)

By Alan Rumrill
Keene native Barry Faulkner was one of the foremost mural artists of the 20th century. His works are on the walls of public and private buildings from Rome, Italy to Salem, Oregon. He was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1881. As a young man Faulkner studied art with local artists with national reputations, and then studied painting for three years at the American Academy in Rome. Faulkner devoted his life to mural painting following his return to this country in 1910. Perhaps best known are his murals for the National Archives in Washington, D. C., the New Hampshire and Oregon state capitols, the John Hancock Building in Boston, and a large mosaic at the RCA Building at the Rockefeller Center in New York.

A large oil study for the Rockefeller Center mosaic was unveiled at the Historical Society of Cheshire County in 2005. The study, entitled Intelligence Awakening Mankind, was donated to the Society by Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene where it hung for two decades. The Historical Society mounted an exhibit in conjunction with that gift. The exhibit focused on Faulkner’s work as a muralist, but also explored his personal and professional life, as well as his connection to Keene. This publication preserves the elements of that exhibition for students of American art and Cheshire County history.

Barry Faulkner was born in Keene, New Hampshire in July 1881, and grew up in the School Street neighborhood. From an early age he loved to paint, study, and socialize, sharing art, music, and food. He attended Keene schools, Phillips Exeter, and Harvard.

As a youth, Barry studied painting and nature with his cousin Abbott Thayer, whose theory of “protective coloration” was the foundation for Barry’s earthy palette. He dreamed of becoming an artist.

During the summer of his 16th birthday Barry Faulkner bicycled the four miles between his parents’ summer home at Silver Lake in Chesham and Abbott Thayer’s home in Dublin to study painting. Thayer was the first in a long list of artists Barry studied with, taught, or met in the course of his career. Many of these artists became lifelong friends.

That fall, Barry went to Phillips Exeter Academy. Barry wanted to attend art school next. Barry’s father, attorney Francis C. Faulkner, was troubled. He wanted Barry to attend Harvard, as he had. His father finally agreed that if Barry attended Harvard for one year and did not wish to continue, he could then study art. Barry entered Harvard in September of 1899 and kept the agreement with his father, attending for one year before pursuing his desire to become a mural painter.

In 1900, after leaving Harvard, Barry embarked on years of study and extensive travel with Abbott Thayer, George de Forest Brush, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. During these years he spent time in Florence, Cairo, New York City, and Cornish.

He studied and traveled to Florence with Dublin’s George de Forest Brush. At Cornish, New Hampshire, he worked in the studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, America’s leading sculptor. In New York he studied at the Art Students League and Chase School.

In 1907 Faulkner won the Rome Prize Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome. He moved there for three years to study ancient art and architecture at the Academy, and traveled extensively in Europe. He went on painting excursions around Europe and the Middle East. In 1910 he settled in New York City where he lived and maintained his studio throughout his career.

In 1917 Barry enlisted in the US Army 40th Engineers. He served two years.

In 1936, Barry bought a farm in Keene, renovated the house and grounds, and added a studio. He then began to spend summers near his family members and in the surroundings of his youth. He returned to Keene permanently in 1965 and died there on October 27, 1966 at the age of 85.

He enjoyed the study involved in a mural project. It required considerable research and many sketches to create a mural or mosaic. At age 74, working on The Advent of the Railroad, Barry was still a curious and methodical student.

Barry used a meticulous process involving research and many preliminary sketches and studies to create lively art. He painted hundreds of people who appeared in the many murals he created. Many of these were historical figures whose portraits or photos he studied diligently to insure accuracy. When no image of these individuals survived, he used models to create characters for his murals. The result was a series of lively, lifelike individuals who populated his work.

Four of his murals survive in public buildings in Keene and are worthy of a visit by Faulkner enthusiasts. Two murals now hang permanently at the Historical Society of Cheshire County at 246 Main Street. They are The Advent of the Railroad, 1848 and a large study for the mosaic Intelligence Awakening Mankind. The mural Central Square is located in Elliot Hall at Keene State College, across Main Street from the Historical Society, and Men of Monadnock is at the Bank of America at the head of Central Square.