Sunday, August 18, 2013

Border Gateways by Oscar Berninghaus

Fort Scott Federal Courthouse Mural by Oscar E. Berninghaus

Tucked away in courtroom now used for storage on the second floor of the Federal Courthouse in Fort Scott Kansas is a mural by Oscar E Berninghaus titled “Border Gateways.”

Born in 1874 in St. Louis, Berninghaus was largely self-taught, but also attended night classes at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1899, he took a train west and, on a lark, stopped in Taos, New Mexico. During his 8 day stay, he met and befriended Bert Phillips, another artist who had taken up residency in Taos the year before. Berninghaus would return to St. Louis to resume his commercial work, but he continued to return to Taos in the summer to pursue his interest in fine art. In 1915, he became a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, along with his friend Bert Phillips and four others.

Border Gateways, Oscar Berninghaus, 1937

In 1937, Berninghaus won the commission for the Fort Scott Kansas federal court mural. Incorrectly identified as Works Progress Administration art, the courtroom mural was commissioned as a project of the U.S. Treasury Department. The painting includes familiar themes of the westward passage of American settlers - Indians, wagontrains pulled by oxen, and a stagecoach.

The Enabling Act of 1854 that Berninghaus refers to accompanied the Kansas-Nebraska bill was approved by then President Benjamin Pierce, May 30, 1854. The idea of admitting two states at the same time - one a free state, Nebraska, and the other a slave state, Kansas - in order that the political balance should be maintained in the United States Senate. The bill provided for Popular Sovereignty, that is, a vote by the territory's inhabitants to determine the status of free or slave. This bill set the stage for "Bloody Kansas", the presidential election of 1860, and eventually the Civil War.

detail Border Gateways, wagon with oxen and stagecoach

Berninghaus' painting of the Kansas landscape depicts the flood of immigrants from all over the United States, both north and south, to determine the issue of free or slave state.

Fort Scott was one such "border gateway". In 1853, the US military abandoned Fort Scott. The public buildings were sold at auction. One building, a former officer's quarters, was opened as the Fort Scott or Free State Hotel. And located directly across the parade ground was the Western or Pro-Slavery Hotel, a former infantry barracks.

detail, Border Gateways, Indians and wagontrain

The Fort Scott Kansas Courthouse is decommissioned, meaning that it is no longer used for public business. One gains access by going to the still active post office and asking for permission to view the painting.

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