Palmer Park: Early Settlement Series
Artist James E. McBurney produced the Early Settlement Series for Palmer Park in 1934. The suite of three panels depicts the early history of the South Side area in which Palmer Park was built soon after the turn of the twentieth century. In the first scene, a Native American man is standing with a woman, likely his spouse, seated on the ground next to him. They gaze out at the lake during sunset. The middle panel features French explorers Jolliet and Marquette looking out at the landscape with a Native American guide seated in a canoe in the water nearby. The third mural portrays Dutch settlers wearing wooden shoes and holding farming implements.The husband and wife stand with their dog in front of a picket fence, with their tidy house in the background.
The mural series was one of dozens of South Park Commission projects that were funded through a federal relief program called the Civil Works Administration (CWA). Established in the early 1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide jobs to the unemployed, the CWA was replaced in 1934 with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The CWA not only covered the costs of numerous repairs and improvements to South Park Commission buildings and landscapes, but it also funded cultural programs and activities, including the creation of the series McBurney’s Early Settlement Series.
Born in Lore City, Ohio, James E. McBurney (1868–1955) received a degree from Northern Illinois State Teachers College and taught penmanship before he went back to school to become an artist. He studied at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York for eleven years, as well other art schools including Académies Castellucho and Colarossi in Paris. He also studied landscape painting under renowned artists John Twachtman and Charles H. Davis in Connecticut. McBurney went on to become an accomplished art teacher, illustrator, and muralist. He was in charge of interior decoration for the Southern California Counties Building at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, California. After settling in Chicago, he founded his own art school and received commissions from all over the country.
McBurney was especially well known for depicting historical scenes with great accuracy. He and his wife, Alice Bolton Fertig, an English and history teacher, often researched historical themes together. Among some of McBurney’s most prominent Chicago murals are those at Woodlawn School, Tilden School, and Woodlawn National Bank. Soon after McBurney completed the Palmer Park murals, the South Park Commission was consolidated into the Chicago Park District. McBurney served as art director for the Chicago Park District between 1935 and 1938. After leaving the Park District, he continued a prolific career as a painter, and several of his students went on to achieve recognition including Mabel Alvarez, Ila McAfee and Elmer Page Turner.