Visitors to the Tennessee State Capitol are often struck by the murals that adorn the reception area of the governor’s office.
Protesters who gathered outside the office in August to demand the removal of the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest certainly were. During the demonstration, some were caught off guard by one of the murals, and within hours, a question about it had been submitted to Curious Nashville:
What is the story behind the mural in the governor’s office that depicts slaves under a plantation veranda, and why is it still there?
The mural in question is a scene from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation. No slaves are shown under the veranda. Two slaves are depicted from a distance working in a field, but the dominant image is in the foreground, where the nation’s seventh president stands next to a shirtless, black man holding the reins of a horse, presumed to be Jackson’s beloved racehorse Truxton.
“We don’t know who the individual portrayed is,” says Jim Hoobler, senior curator at the Tennessee State Museum, which oversees the State Capitol. “We do know, though, that one of the most famous jockeys in the period was Simon the Jockey. He was African-American. He was very small. And he won just about every race against Andrew Jackson.”
The mural is part of a pair that Hoobler says represents the Great Seal of the State of Tennessee. The Hermitage is meant to symbolize “Agriculture” — one of the two words that appear prominently on the seal.
Beside it, a scene of stevedores unloading a riverboat symbolizes “Commerce.” At least two of the figures are also African-American, but they’re the only other black people to appear in the series of murals.
Other panels depict Native Americans and European settlers. Taken together, the cycle of 11 murals is meant to tell Tennessee’s early history — from the pre-Columbian era to statehood — with the Agriculture-and-Commerce mural as the culmination.
“In this space, what they’re celebrating is where Tennessee came from and how it came into existence,” says Hoobler. “So it starts with Native Americans over there in the corner, the Europeans exploring, the Spanish, the French and the English.”
Subsequent murals show the so-called “Lost State of Franklin,” American settlers failed first attempt at statehood; the Donelson party landing; and the defense of Fort Nashboro by white settlers against a raid from local Native Americans. The mural cycle stops short of the Civil War.
The murals were commissioned in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The artist was Jirayr Zorthian, an Armenian-American painting in a realist style popular at the time. The murals are meant to showcase Tennessee’s natural environment and the work ethic of its people. Rivers roar. Muscles ripple. Scenes are lit dramatically.
A self-portrait appears in one mural. Zorthian is seated on a chair in front of a log cabin. And his signature appears in a corner of the largest mural — an image of downtown Nashville during construction of the Capitol.
The city sits high above the Cumberland River. The rocky bluffs below are painted in the form of a reclining woman, a holdover from the mid-19th century engraving on which the painting is based.
“I don’t think the actual geology looked like this,” Hoobler says. “I think it’s a reference to a Roman mother goddess, a ‘materna’ who protected the city.”
Other scenes include DeSoto’s expedition through Tennessee, the building of Fort Prud’homme in West Tennessee and the attack by Native Americans on Fort Nashboro.
They’re real events, but Hoobler says the artist probably didn’t worry much about whether the details were accurate.
“I think, like the Spanish there, they’re wearing armor. Do we really think they wore armor in our weather in the summer? Probably not. That would be like baking in an oven.”
Even so, Hoobler says he’s heard few complaints about the murals depictions of African-Americans, Native Americans or other figures. The murals have been displayed continuously since 1938 and would be difficult — logistically or legally — to move or alter.
“What we have to remember, though, is these are from 1938. And they’re depicting the world from pre-European contact, to European contact and up to statehood. So that world and the world we’re in now are very different.”
The murals are visible to the public. They’re part of the State Museum’s hourly tours of the Capitol, held each weekday.