The Tavern Club

April 08, 2015

We’ve had a lot of fun digging through some old pictures recently. One of the many treasures was a collection of black-and-white photos depicting the Tavern Club mural Love Through the Ages still hanging on the walls of that storied institution. There are no dates on the photos but we assume they are from the 1930s, when the mural was fresh.

The Tavern Club was founded in the late 1920s by a group of Chicago socialites, politicians, writers, and artists as a private club for mixing and mingling, and the clandestine use of alcohol, which was illegal at the time because of Prohibition. It was also one of the first clubs to allow women and African-American members.

Edgar had actually painted similar murals two years earlier for a one-night ball at the Drake Hotel. The paintings showed various scenes of famous lovers, from Cleopatra to Henry VIII and his wives. Its witty and somewhat scandalous nature was incredibly popular with the Depression-era socialites, and so the Tavern Club commissioned Edgar, one of their members, to do a much more extensive version for their dining room.

 

Starting with amoebas and protozoa entangling themselves, then moving onto a Neanderthal dragging away a woman, then through the history of the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and so on, each (mainly Western) historical event was painted in exquisite, humorous detail. Whereas the previous murals from the Architect’s Ball in 1932 ended with King Henry, these murals went on through the eras of colonization and westward expansion, showing Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith, Brigham Young and his many wives (perhaps a reference to King Henry), and finally an ominous and prophetic mural called The Rape of Peace (pictured above), showing the emerging dictators of the 1930s—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito—all beginning to tear a nude woman, representing Peace, into pieces.

 

A special evening was held in 1935 to formally debut the murals, and apparently it was barely shy of bacchanalian. Guests arrived in costume to a flourish of trumpets and the "Hymn to Apollo." A woman, posing as a goddess, dressed only in a veil, threw off her covering and announced “a night of ancient and deathless rapture.” Seen as a veritable art event, this debut made headlines, with most critics leaving in awe of Edgar’s talent. However, some saw it as overly cartoonish, lacking in real emotional gravitas. Perhaps to some extent they were right, but that doesn’t mean Edgar didn’t design the murals the way they were with the overall culture of the Tavern Club in mind. The club was a place for “witty ineffectuals as well as taciturn successman,” and the clearly irreverent murals would have made perfect sense in the context of the time and place in which they were installed. It was not a club for boring intellectual conversations but wild merriment amongst Chicago’s artistic, social, and political elites, with a few drops of serious discussion thrown into the mix from time to time.

 

In the 1950s, the murals were removed from the walls and sold in an auction, which Edgar attended. Many of these pieces still exist in private homes, but they are by far mostly unaccounted for. We’d love to discover the locations of all of the remaining paintings, though we realize this is probably a fool’s errand. Miller repainted Love Through the Ages on the same walls several years later, only this time in a different style, and many thought they appeared dated. These murals were again removed when the Tavern Club closed its doors for good in the mid-2000s. It is our understanding they are stored in a warehouse of a private art collector. Perhaps one day they’ll be resurrected and shown to the public.