The Panama Canal Murals

The story of the heroic effort that produced one of the supreme achievements of all time – the construction of a water passage between the world’s two greatest oceans across the Isthmus of Panama – is powerfully depicted in graphic detail in the Panama Canal murals, mounted in the rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration Building at Balboa Heights, Republic of Panama.   The murals have been a major Canal area attraction throughout the years.

The murals tell the overall story of the building of the Panama Canal in four main scenes, which show Gaillard Cut at Gold Hill, where the Canal passes through the Continental Divide; the building of the spillway at Gatun Dam, which dams the Chagres River to create Gatun Lake; construction of a lock miter gate; and the construction of Miraflores Locks near the Pacific entrance to the Canal.  The power of these vividly portrayed scenes has the effect of linking all who view them in an unbroken chain with those engineering masters and the heroic work force that created the Canal.

Canal Chief Engineer George W. Goethals is credited with having the foresight to ensure that a record of the monumental labor involved in the building of the Canal was preserved in this art form, so that all who come after might not only marvel at what was accomplished and appreciate its grandeur, but might share in the sense of pride and commitment that this magnificent achievement has always evoked, not only in those who built the waterway, but also in all who have been involved, throughout the years, in its operation and administration. Goethals chose carefully the person who would be entrusted with this special project, selecting William B. Van Ingen of New York, an outstanding artist who had achieved considerable fame for his murals in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

Van Ingen agreed to produce the murals at $25 per square foot, which was the way such work was contracted in those days, and the finished murals cover about 1,000 square feet. Van Ingen and two assistants, C.T. Berry and Ira Remsen, make charcoal sketches of Canal construction activities for the mural during two visits to Panama in 1914 while on the latter part of the construction work. Van Ingen then painted the murals on separate panels in his New York studio. The panels were shipped to Panama and installed over a 3-day period in January 1915 under the artist’s personal supervision. The paintings have the distinction of being the largest group of murals by an American artist on display outside the United States.

Van Ingen identified completely with Canal work.  In discussing the murals at that time, he said that he had become so caught up in the construction of the effort that he felt that he, too, was a Canal worker.  He said, "I forgot I was an artist and had genuine regret at not being entitled to a number and a brass identification badge."

According to Van Ingen, his challenge in producing the murals had been how to portray the magnitude of canal construction. In explaining his approach to the task, he said, "I tried to compose into one picture the views to be seen from different standpoints, but united in the mind. It enabled me to combine different periods of time in the construction work." Commenting on his perspective I composing the paintings, he added, "Any success the paintings may have had came, I believe, from an endeavor to see with eyes of the man in the ditch."

The murals were restored in 1993 by art conservator Anton Rajer, of Madison, Wisconsin, and rededicated in a special ceremony on September 29, 1993.

Restorer’s Remarks

The Panama Canal murals in the Administration Building rotunda are the masterpiece of their creator, artist William B. Van Ingen. The light impressionist colors reflect the atmospheric quality of Panama and the bold compositions commemorate in pictorial form, the actual building of the Panama Canal. Over the years, mold and dirt settled on the murals necessitating cleanings in 1929, 1932, 1939, 1960, and 1993. During the 1993 conservation project, over 22,000 cotton swabs were used to clean the murals of dirt and grime, as well as old overpaint that was covering many areas of the mural, particularly the sky of the frieze. The cleaning was accomplished with a combination of cleaners that removed old grime and old varnish but did not harm the murals. A few areas of touch-up were needed, though not many, as the murals were in good condition despite previous cleanings. The entire project was documented with video and hundreds of photos, with black and white and color, and an extensive written report was prepared in English and Spanish to serve as a guide for any future restorations.

Edited from an official publication of the Panama Canal Commission, March 1996

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CZBrats - June 1998
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