|A full view of The Early Birds, Clarence deGiers, who commissioned the mural, is shown third from left, sitting in the airplane. Octave Chanute, subject of an article in this issue of Traces is pictured near the center, with the mustache and beard.|
Each figure is identified by number
BRUCE L. JOHNSON
|Richard Gruelle's other son, Johnny's brother, was Justin C. Gruelle (1889-1978), least know among the three and yet in his own right a wonderful artist who emulated his father's fine style by working in watercolors and oils. Justin Gruelle wa a masterful portrait and landscape artist, and the mural he did for the Works Progress Administration and others often allowed him to showcase his extraordinary talent. The Indiana Historical Society's William Henry Smith Memorial Library recently received from William Smart, Justin Gruelle's nephew, one of his uncle's murals, a seven-foot-by-eighteen-foot oil on canvas titled The Early Birds, which has had a life as fraught with danger as many of the aviation pioneers and personalities it depicts.|
The Early Birds of Aviation, Inc., was an organization of aeronautical pioneers who flew solo before
17 December 1916, which was the thirteenth anniversary of the Wright brothers' groundbreaking flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Justin Gruelle's mural contains not only portraits of many of these aviation pioneers but also their aircraft, and all are depicted with an
eye toward detail and historical accuracy that would be difficult to exceed.
Justin Gruelle established his reputation as a muralist by work he did in the 1930s for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Between 1936 and 1939 he executed several murals exhibited at the New York World's Fair. In 1940 aviation pioneer Clarence A. deGiers commissioned Gruelle, his longtime friend, to do the requisite historical research and then paint four companion murals for the Long Island City, New York, headquarters of the Liquidometer Corporation, which deGiers had founded after World War I to market patents for measuring fuel in aircraft. One of the murals was The Early Birds, painted in oil on stretched canvas and mounted directly on a lobby wall at Liquidometer. Today only The Early Birds.is known to exist; the location of the three other murals is lost to history.
Depicted on the mural now at the Society are more than fifteen aviation pioneers, including Wilbur and Orville Wright; Glenn H. Curtiss, who made his first powered airplane flight on 22 May 1908; Frank J. Coffyn, a member of the original team of five who were taught to fly by Orville Wright in 1910; and Octave Chanute, an engineer who started his own glider experiments at the Indiana Dunes in 1896 aat the age of sixty-four. Aircraft are also prominent in the mural, such as Francesco Lana's all-metal airship of 1670, William Henson's steam airplane design (an "aerial steam carriage") of 1842, and Eugene Ely's craft making the first ship landing on the USS Pennsylvania (Armored Cruiser #4) in Ssan Francisco Bay on 18 January 1911.
In 1955, deGiers presented the Early Birds mural to the western headquarters of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences in Los Angeles. He invited Gruelle to go to Los Angeles to supervise its installation and to paint a new panel to fill in an area on the mural that was missing because it had wrapped around a doorway in its original location. The IAS headquarters later moved to San Diego, and the mural moved with it.
In 1969, deGiers gave the mural to the Smithsonian Institution for installation in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The Early Birds of Aviation, Inc., held a reunion there in October 1970, and Gruelle's mural was dispayed prominently in the North Hall, just beyond the left wing of the Spirit fo St. Louis, the most prominent location in the museum.
When the new Air and Space Museum was being constructed in the mid-1970s, The Early Birds was removed to temporary storage. According to a staff memo written five years later, when the museum moved into its new facility, the mural, because of it size, did not fit into any current or future exhibition plans. It was transferred on loan to the Dorchester Heritage Museum, a small community musuem in Cambridge, Maryland. The mural was later declared "surplus to the requirements of the National Air and Space Museum," and by 1980 it had been deaccessioned and permanently transferred.
For more than twenty-five years The Early Birds hung high on a wall of the Dorchester Heritage Museum, located in an old airplane hangar on Horns Point Road in Cambridge, on the former estate of Francis du Pont, now part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Since future plans for the hangar museum were uncertain, the institution's board of directors realized that the mural deserved a more permanent home where it could be properly housed and conserved and, perhaps even more important, appreciated by more viewers.
After due deliberation, the museum's board decided to deed the mural to Smart, reasoning that, as a family member, he would assure its future care and higher visibility. Smart contacted several Indiana institutions but finally selected the IHS as the most appropriate repository for his grandfather's magnificent work. The mural was moved to the Society in late 2002.
Time and lack of proper care have taken their toll on the mural. After it arrived at the IHS, staff from the Indianapolis Museum of Art performed a conservation assessment. Although the work appears "generally sound," stabilizing the painting, combined with extensive cleaning and in-painting on areas of loss, abrasion, and residual over-painting, will require a tremendous amount of time given its great size. The estimated cost of conservation is about $75,000.
The Early Birds will be part of the Society's centennial of flight exhibition in April 2003. Upon the exhibition's conclusion, the mural will be retired, pending conservation. The IHS will seek conservation funding among those people and organizations who believe this improtant part of Indiana's aviation and artistic heritage deserves to be saved. Contribution of any amount, marked "Gruelle Mural Fund," will be gratefully accepted.
Bruce L. Johnson is vice president of the Indiana Historical Society's William Henry Smith Memorial Library. For information on how to contribute to the Gruelle Mural Fund, contact him at (317) 234-0034, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
via email from Martin Gruelle, 2-28-05
My name is Martin Gruelle, I am Justin Gruelle's grandson. I was surprised and very pleased to come across your site showing my granddads mural of the Early Birds. You did an excellent job of putting your site together, I enjoyed it immensely.
I am continuing the Gruelle family tradition as an artist, and have a family history page on my website. I am in the process of expanding that section of my site, and would like your permission to add a link from the section on my grandfather to your site. My website is :
I have also mentioned your site to William Smart, though I am uncertain if he has had the opportunity to see it. Again I thank you for the wonderful presentation of my grandfathers mural. Sincerely
Editor's Note: I thank Martin for his kind words. It is always a thrill for me to hear from descendants of the pioneers on my website. I heartily recommend that you visit his site by clicking on the link above so as to enjoy his own work in the tradition of his grandfather and to learn more about the family. Of course I would be pleased if he would link from his site to mine.