Seventy-five years ago, a small painting was cause for a big celebration in David City.
It was then that Dale Nichols, one of the foremost Regionalist painters in America, returned to his hometown of David City in order to show his gratitude to its citizenry by presenting the city with one of his more well-known paintings entitled “The Foundation."
The return of the artist was prompted by the completion of the city’s new municipal auditorium. It was here that David City demonstrated its pride for a native son who had achieved great success in the art world of that era.
As it turns out, the milestone anniversary of the 1943 gifting of the Nichols painting to David City coincides with plans to display the painting once again this summer, this time at the Bone Creek Creek Museum of Agrarian Art.
The art piece will be part of “War in the Corn,” a major exhibition regarding the professional rivalry of Nichols and another well-known area artist, Terence Duren from Shelby. The exhibit will be held May 2 through September 23.
Painters like Nichols came to national prominence in the 1930s and 40s by creating the art style known as Regionalism. The style proved popular among Americans who were seeking out artistic messages featuring this country's unique history and culture.
By early 1943, work was nearing completion on a new municipal auditorium for the city. The structure had initially been approved by voters in a 1940 city election, then constructed over a three-year period using both federal and local funds.
By February 1943, city officials were looking to somehow commemorate the structure’s completion. It was then that David City Mayor Dr. S.B. Manning received a letter from Nichols, then living in Arizona, stating that he'd be willing to donate a painting to the town for the celebration.
“Let me know in plenty of time so that I can have a painting that will fit in with the spirit of the occasion, as well as be of permanent interest,” Nichols wrote.
A formal dedication of the auditorium was later set for Aug. 1, 1943. By then, Nichols had selected his gift to the city — a painting he had originally done about two years earlier called “The Foundation.”
The painting, in a white and gold frame, measured about 45-by-55 inches. At its center was depicted a U.S. flag-raising ceremony being done by the students and teacher at a one-room rural school house.
The painting otherwise shows a farmstead, a grain elevator and a passing freight train.
By August 1943, Nichols, who had been born and raised on a farm southwest of David City, was at the peak of his artistic fame. He had created paintings which then hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Art Institute in Chicago, and other galleries.
For the past eight years, Nichols had exhibited his work by invite at more than 40 museums and received 24 major rewards. He had held a professorship in art at an Illinois university.
And, just prior to his arrival in David City for the auditorium event, it was announced that Nichols had done a series of illustrations for the 175th anniversary edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Nichols, his wife at the time, the former Lucile McIntosh from David City, and their daughter, Joan, arrived in David City by car a few days prior to the dedication. He stopped on the south edge of town to marvel at improvements which had been made to the 80-acre park area since his last visit.
Presentation of “The Foundation” to the city was extensively covered by the town’s two local newspapers, the Butler County Press and the People’s Banner. Reflecting how the community was proud of Nichols’ success, the Banner later devoted three columns of its front page to the entire speech that Nichols gave that day.
A “conservatively estimated” 800 Butler County residents and greeters from statewide gathered in the new auditorium to see the presentation and to hear from Nichols. The Press stated that Nichols was greeted with “a warm hearted ovation upon his appearance on the stage.”
The Press added that Nichols spoke “simply and entertainingly” about his early life in David City, and of relatives and early educators who had encouraged him to pursue his love of art.
“They taught me to keep my feet on the ground, and my chin in the air, and to not allow my head to outgrow my hat band,” Nichols said.
Unveiling The Foundation to the audience was done by two young David City women, Georgia Walla and Darlene Sanley, the latter a niece of Nichols.
Regarding his painting, Nichols said he felt it was an appropriate painting for a public park.
“I want those who see it to always remember what are the foundations of our civilization,” he said.
Regarding the agrarian nature of the painting, he said “all culture and civilization is born in agriculture."
Nichols added that the freight train symbolized agricultural products shipped out to the world. The grain elevator represented abundance. And, the little red school house symbolized the education given to children to make them responsible citizens.
After his talk, the Banner reported, Mayor Manning called Nichols to stand beside him and "with a hearty handshake across the picture,” accepted it for David City.
According to the Banner, the painting was then valued at $2,000.
Following an informal reception in the auditorium in his honor, Nichols and his family stayed in David City for several more days. He spent his time here working on two commissioned oil paintings, one for a farm equipment firm and another for a van company.
Although it was never exhibited anywhere prior to David City, Nichols alluded in his talk to The Foundation having been reproduced by the Thomas D. Murphy Calendar Company of Iowa, possibly on a calendar.
The Foundation was originally displayed in the director’s office at the auditorium. Doors to the room always remained open so visitors could enter and view the painting.
Eventually, the painting was moved to the City Office where it was again displayed for a number of years. It was still later moved to Bone Creek Museum.
Gallery Manager Gabrielle Comte said The Foundation was originally loaned to the museum for a 2008 exhibition on Dale Nichols. The loan was later extended for two consecutive three-year terms, and was recently extended to a five-year term as requested by city officials.
According to Museum Curator Amanda Mobley Guenther, the painting has been displayed at Bone Creek on several occasions since coming under its care. Another opportunity will be during the upcoming Nichols-Duren exhibit.
“The Foundation will be one of the featured comparisons in the exhibit. Duren did a painting of a school house as well, so the two paintings will be paired in exhibition for comparison,” Guenther said.
A book written by Guenther in 2011 about Dale Nichols notes that the artist, in the decades following his early prominence, went on to have both high and low periods of success in his professional art career. A resurgence of public interest in his work came about in the final years prior to his death in 1995.
While winter barn scenes done by Nichols are more highly desired by art collectors, a painting such as The Foundation still has much to offer about the life and philosophy of the artist, Guenther said.
“I think the Foundation is significant for its positive message,” she said. “Thematically, you might say this painting is more obviously patriotic. But all of Nichols’ paintings project America — the landscape and its people — in a positive light.”