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1933::Pioneers and the 49ers

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

The murals depicting the development of the West in the mid-1800s.

1949::Pioneers and the 49ers by Dean Cornwell

"1949::Pioneers and the 49ers by Dean Cornwell"

Sketch Clip: The Graphic (1949)

London, England


Artist: Dean Cornwell (1892-1960)


The 'Pioneers and the 49ers' was one of four murals designed to illustrate North America's story of the West. This segment represents the sudden integration of thousands of men, women and children from around the world.


1849::The Emigrant Train to California Gold

"1849::The Emigrant Train to California Gold"

Sketch Clip: (tbd)


Artist: Unknown


In 1849, farmers, clerks, lawyers, doctors and people of every profession dropped whatever life they lived to travel to the Pacific Coast in search of gold. Whether alone or with their families, by wagon or foot, they travelled across the prairies and over the Rocky Mountains to the promised land of the West. They battled disease, starvation and the elements, and sometimes Indians and each other. Some struck it rich, and some lost it all. Almost a decade later, many of the same '49ers travelled north with the discovery of gold on the banks of the Fraser River. But some stayed in California, realizing the West had more to offer than gold. Irrigation projects created jobs and turned the hot California dust into rich soil that produced fruit and corn. Shortly after the American Civil War, the railroad was extended west to the coast reducing the several-month journey of the '49ers to a five-day trip across the continent.


1931::Developing the Characters

"1931::Developing the Characters"

Photo Clip: The Billings Gazette (1931)

Billings, Montana


In 1927, mural artists submitted their best designs in a contest to decorate the newly built Los Angeles Public Library in California. Dean Cornwell, a celebrated illustrator from the East Coast who was eager to win, submitted three entries, one in his name and two under false terms. He won the contest in his own name and second and third place with his false-name entries. It was time to get to work.


Cornwell dropped his high-paying job as an illustrator and moved to London, where he spent Saturdays studying in the National Gallery. He began his work by copying 150 human figures from the incredible Italian murals and discovered that the artist had revealed the hands and feet of each figure wherever possible. Cornwell applied this tried principle of design to his murals for the library. After a thousand sketches of over one hundred live models, he had developed his final characters.


2015::The Cromwell Murals in the Los Angeles Public Library

"2015::The Cromwell Murals in the Los Angeles Public Library"

Photo: (tbd)


Cornwell had agreed to complete twelve panels of murals for the library's rotunda. Four of his murals, each 40 feet square with 300 human figures on a scale of twice their natural height, were considered the largest in the world (except for Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel). They represented the progress of the Pacific Westcoast, and the Pioneers and 49ers segment covered the era of the clipper ships, wagons and locomotives that brought the first settlers to the coast. Eight smaller complementary panels showed the development of native arts and industries. In 1931, Cornwell shipped his enormous murals to California (via the Panama Canal) to complete the final process. On February 6, 1933, the scaffoldings were finally removed, and his work was unveiled. Cornwell received mixed criticism for his finished design, but appreciation for his work grew over time. His murals continue to grace the walls of the Los Angeles Public Library.


In 2017, an Oaxaca mural artist painted the bare walls underneath Cornwell's murals with a modern-day perspective on California history.


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