September 18, 2015

In 1905, an artist named John White Alexander was commissioned to paint the most expensive work in the history of the United States.

He had painted some of the greatest living Americans - including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman.

This new commission was an enormous mural in a grand hall. He was offered $175,000 for the work, which was some serious cash at the time. (Around $4 million in today’s dollars!)

Not surprisingly, the man who asked him to do the painting was one of the richest men in America: Andrew Carnegie.

And Carnegie’s standards were high – both for the mural and for everything else about his lavish art museum in Pittsburgh.

Those high standards even included the columns surrounding the mural, which were made out of the same marble used to build the Parthenon.

Carnegie wanted to impress rich friends who pulled up to the museum in carriages – but he also had big ideas about turning the institutions he funded into resources for his steelworkers.

Catherine Evans, the chief Curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art, points out that “the first Carnegie library [actually had] a shower area on the ground level, where people from the factories could come and rinse off before they went into the library. So there was a real consciousness about how the audience was.”

Carnegie wanted common people to pull themselves up - much the way he had. But he could also be a ruthless boss. 

Alexander's massive mural, not surprisingly, offers Carnegie's view of the world.

At the bottom are paintings of men. They're enveloped in smoke, pushing and pulling metal equipment, and, above them, tall women waft around in flowing gowns.

In amongst the woman, just above a wisp of dark smoke, is a knight who looks like he just got back from the Round Table.

He’s being crowned by a beautiful, topless woman… and he looks a lot like Andrew Carnegie.

Andrew Carnegie, Culture, museum, art

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