José Moya del Pino's Murals
José Moya del Pino was not only a landscape and portrait painter, but also made a name for himself as a muralist and teacher of mural painting. His most accessible mural is in Coit Tower in San Francisco, but he also painted murals for several post offices and federal buildings (under the auspices of the New Deal’s WPA – Works Progress Administration) and for breweries, private clubs, small businesses, and individuals. He also painted extremely large murals for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40.
The Merchants Exchange Club
The first set of murals Moya del Pino painted were in 1932, for the Merchants Exchange Club in San Francisco. They summed up the history of San Francisco in three images representing the “Age of the Dons” (the 18th century), the “Golden Days” (the 19th century’s gold rush), and the present and future — all three focusing on shipping and commerce, the main activities of the club.
In the first mural he depicted the Spanish colonial era, with a Spanish galleon and a Panama sailing vessel on the bay, and in the foreground Native Americans with baskets of fruit, Spanish soldiers in colorful uniforms, and the padres. In the second mural he illustrated the Bay Area’s first settlement at the time of the pioneers, picturing the “49ers” that came in search of gold, and the first immigrants from Asia.
The third mural is a wide panorama of the cosmopolitan life of the bay in the 20th century and looking to the future: steamships ply the bay’s waters, airplanes and even a dirigible float in the sky, and the construction of a skyscraper hints at the continuing development of the city. This painting includes a remarkably accurate depiction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, for which construction did not begin until July 1933, three months after the Merchants Exchange murals were completed. Moya del Pino must have had access to the plans, probably facilitated by his friend Timothy Pflueger, who was the chairman of the committee of consulting architects on the Bay Bridge project.
The Merchants Exchange Lounge is currently a special events venue; these murals can only be viewed by appointment. The originals were in poor shape so a “digital restoration” was performed, stitching together a series of high resolution photographs of the three works for viewing while the originals are properly conserved.
In 1933-34 Moya del Pino joined several other artists and muralists to decorate the interior of Coit Tower. The assignment was to depict “aspects of life in California.” Moya’s mural, titled San Francisco Bay, North is located in the elevator foyer. Matching the point of view of a spectator sitting exactly in that location atop Telegraph Hill and looking due north, it shows in the upper area the cliffs on the opposite side of the bay, the water of the bay dotted with sailboats, and the island of Alcatraz. A steam boat placidly crosses the bay pulling a barge. In the lower half of the mural, boats are docked around the pier, buildings of several stories are seen from above, a factory chimney billows out steam, and at the edge of the cliff, looking down on it all, two men are sitting with their backs to the viewer: one of them draws the scene below, as the other looks on. Moya’s friend Otis Oldfield (also a Coit Tower muralist) was the model for the first man, while the second is Moya himself.
In the same elevator lobby are a companion painting of the bay by Oldfield, which picks up just East of where Moya’s left off, and two Bay Area Hills by Rinaldo Cuneo. Unlike most of the murals in the rest of the building, the ones in the elevator lobby are done in oil on canvas rather than true fresco.
You can visit the Tower today to see these works along with many other wonderful artists of the time. Free tours are also offered by San Francisco City Guides. Viewing Moya’s mural does not require a ticket, but on busy days the line for the elevator makes it difficult to enter the lobby.
Aztec Brewing Company
A year after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Aztec Brewing Company, which had been operating in Mexicali, Mexico since 1921, decided to open a production facility in San Diego. To create a unique and culturally relevant “destination” tasting room they hired artisans to outfit it with hand carved tables and stained glass windows, and brought José Moya del Pino down from San Francisco to decorate its walls and oversee the work.
The resulting murals were vibrant and exotic, depicting themes and images from Aztec and Mayan eras, some hewing to Spanish colonial styles and others reflecting the ’30s-era Mexican and US mural movements. On the main wall behind the tiled serving bar, Moya’s centerpiece mural represents the ancient Aztec ritual of human sacrifice, with a high priest extracting a man’s heart; on the two sides, one mural reproduces scenes from pre-Columbian history and the second has scenes from the time of the Spanish colonization. Local landscapes were included, with Mount San Miguel featuring prominently.
In 1948 the brewery was sold to a new brewing company and five years later it closed for good, leaving the building abandoned. Forty years later, the building was slated for demolition. Prominent local muralist Salvador Torres intervened and was eventually able to convince the San Diego City Council to remove and preserve from destruction the murals and some of the furniture. After many years in storage, the main wall with the human sacrifice and some other pieces were installed in the Logan Heights branch of the San Diego Public Library and are now viewable during normal business hours.
Acme Brewing Company
The Acme Brewing Company had been established in 1907 and had its factory near Telegraph Hill, in the heart of San Francisco, but during Prohibition had been limited to making ice cream, soft drinks and “near-beer.” When it was able to resume the brewing activity in 1934, it built a new art deco-style building to house its offices, sales department, and tasting room. For the latter, the brewery commissioned Moya del Pino to create three frescoes to describe the stages that make up the manufacturing and consumption of beer. The murals were completed in November 1935.
Moya del Pino’s first mural represents the work of collecting and crushing hops and barley. The second shows the several steps involved in the beer manufacturing process—boiling, laboratory testing, barreling, bottling . And the third, also known as A Family Picnic, represents a group of friends enjoying the bounty of farming and brewer’s arts while they share the joy of family and the Bay Area’s incomparable vistas. Like others of Moya’s paintings, these murals reflect the regional impulse then flourishing in the United States, celebrating the qualities of the local environment. In the Acme Brewery murals Moya del Pino explicitly praises the productivity of the land and its inhabitants, and showcases the beauty of California's natural environment by including the marvelous landscapes of the Bay, with Mount Tamalpais in the background. The model for the central figure, reclining on a picnic blanket with several beer bottles being enjoyed by the group, is believed to be the artist’s wife, Helen.
After the brewery closed, the building became the African American Art & Culture Center and the murals have been preserved there to this day.
Post Offices and Federal Buildings
The Works Progress Administration (WPA, renamed Work Projects Administration in 1939) was the largest and most ambitious of the New Deal agencies, employing millions of workers to carry out public works projects. It also operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. Moya del Pino participated in several competitions and completed a number of murals for Post Offices and federal buildings from 1936 to 1941. The ones below are still in place and viewable during regular business hours.
1936 he won the contest for a mural in the Stockton, California Post Office and Federal Building; the title was Mail and Travel by Stagecoach, and it depicted the early days of California mail delivery, when passengers and mail traveled on the same coach; “something like old Wells Fargo,” the artist recalled later. Among the stagecoach passengers, some carrying rifles, what is striking is the gaze of a lady dressed in blue, looking directly at the viewer.
In 1937 Moya del Pino painted a mural for the Redwood City, California post office.This town, nowadays quite active and considered the northern gateway to Silicon Valley, at that time was a small town on the edge of the bay, whose main industry was floriculture. The theme of the mural therefore focused on horticulture, gardening and the flower trade, with the title “Flower farming and vegetable raising.”
In 1940 Moya applied for a mural for the San Antonio, Texas, post office, intending to paint the story of the Alamo and of General Sam Houston. He did not get the commission, but as the runner-up in the contest he was assigned Alpine, Texas, instead. The mural’s background shows the town of Alpine and a mountain range under a cloudy sky, with the famed local Texas Longhorn red cattle in center stage. In the foreground, a young man leans against a boulder reading a book, a woman comfortably stretched out on the ground leafs through an illustrated magazine, and a cowboy reads a newspaper. The books and magazines symbolize the city of Alpine's pride in their university of Sul Ross.
Out of all of the post office murals in Texas, Alpine’s is the only one that represents an intellectual pursuit rather than local industry. The Living New Deal included an article about the Jose Moya del Pino mural in Alpine, Texas. This organization recognizes the many lasting impacts from the New Deal era and we are proud of Moya's contributions during that time.
Moya’s mural for the post office in Lancaster, California (a city located in the Mojave Desert, near Los Angeles) is titled Hauling water pipe through Antelope Valley and depicts a wide desert scene, punctuated by Joshua trees, with a long line of mules pulling a wagon that carries the pipes to bring drinking water and irrigation to the desert surrounding Lancaster—a big operation at the time, designed to make this desert land inhabitable and productive.
The Great Western Malting Company in Vancouver, Washington commissioned three murals in 1947, representing the gathering and malting of barley for their new art deco tap room. The little information we have about them comes from Ellen Layendecker, granddaughter of one of the founders, who was so kind as to send us photographs. The Tap Room was torn down, but the artwork and bar were preserved and incorporated in the new building. The company is private; viewing might be possible with the permission of the owners.
In 1949 Moya was commissioned to create a mural for the Rossi Brothers pharmacy in San Anselmo, California, north of San Francisco, depicting the historic evolution of Pharmacology. (The San Anselmo Historical Museum has a great article about this mural, including photos and an explanation of the timeline). This too, like many of Moya’s other murals, was “fresco secco,” meaning painted on dry plaster, usually on casein or with casein paints. The building was demolished in 2013 to make a park. However, the mural was preserved and is now at the Unión Española de California, a cultural center in San Francisco for Spaniards and people of Spanish origin.
In 1958, the Paul Masson Winery and Distillery hired Moya’s friend, the architect John Bolles, to design and build the new Paul Masson Champagne Cellars in Saratoga, California. The architect designed a spiral walkway leading to the entrance of the second floor, and commissioned Moya to decorate the interior of that ramp with a mural that would look like a mosaic and recount the history of winemaking.
Moya del Pino also painted several murals for individuals and for private institutions. Among them was a mural of a Joshua Tree for the Marin art and Garden Center, and one of children studying and at play for the elementary school in Ross, California, where his own son and daughters as well as several of their schoolmates acted as models.