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José Maria Sert Murals at the Rockefeller Center

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Joseph Maria Sert was born in Barcelona in 1874, a son of an affluent textile merchant. He studied art in Rome and moved to Paris in 1899 when he was 25.

pencil portrait of jose maria sert, spanish painter

In 1910, Sert began dedicating himself to murals and other large-scale work. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned him to create sets for his Ballets Russes which consisted of a series of large form canvases painted in his signature grisaille style.


PRODUCTIVE ARTIST

He was an incredibly productive artist and painted 7000 square meters of paintings during his lifetime and throughout the world. He was working for rich magnates in the US and internationally. However the highlight of his work, in my opinion, is the Rockefeller Center Murals.


AMERICAN PROGRESS MURAL AT ROCKEFELLAR CENTER

American Progress was painted in1937 and was commissioned by the Rockefellers to replace Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads, which Nelson Rockefeller destroyed for political reasons. Here he used only 2 colours and achieved a genuine biblical fantasy where he painted Nephilim, mysterious beings or people in the Hebrew Bible who are large and strong. In the Rockefeller murals they are depicted sustaining the American industry.


image of mral painting at rockefellar center by jose maria sert

COMPOSITIONAL TUNNELS AND SPIRALS

In the image above,air planes draw a funnel with their vapour trails capturing our attention and taking us through a dimension into another. The same funnel can be seen in "Ascent of the Blessed" a polyptych of four panels entitled Visions of the Hereafter by Hieronymus Bosch (Accademia di Venezia). The foreshortened figure of the giant is nicely drawn. There are photos of Sert’s studio with mannequins that he used for reference to develop these figures. I consider his murals at the Rockefeller Center his best work.


jose maria sert , Visions of Hereafter at the Accademia di Venezia

In the Ballroom at the Carnavalet Museum in Paris we can observe how Sert painted spiral ribbons that form a tunnel which leads into the heavens. It was probably a special effect of that time. Imagine being a couple dancing & swirling and looking up at that spiral movement on the ceiling. It probably would have given an intense sense of vertigo. Even if you didn't look up you would have still had this sense of movement in your peripheral vision.


https://www.carnavalet.paris.fr/en/collections/decor-ballroom-hotel-de-wendel-mansion
Jose Maria Sert Mural decorated ballroom at the Carnavalet Museum, Paris

Sert painted just one other mural in the United States which is located at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, American Progress at the Rockefeller Center.

Mural: American Progress by Jose maria Sert

Sert had a vivacious personal life. His first wife, the pianist of Polish descent, Misia Godebska, was a libertine woman. The bohemian lifestyle of the artist was surely of inspiration for the Rockefeller murals voluptuous and sensual nudity.


One can see his changing style according to the fashion of that time. In his earlier works, we can see the influence of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Baroque.


Sert is a beautiful combination of contemporary expressionism and almost baroque fantasy. He was able to carry the torch of Renaissance artists into the middle of the 20th century and this is why I find his work so inspiring and engaging.


Have you visited the Rockefeller Center and seen José Maria Sert's murals? Leave a comment below and I will personally respond.

Thank you

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