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The Underground Railroad (mural study, Dolgeville, New York Post Office)

ca. 1940 James Michael Newell Born: Carnegie, Pennsylvania 1900 Died: 1985 oil on paperboard sight 15 3/8 x 27 7/8 in. (39.0 x 70.7 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Transfer from the Internal Revenue Service through the General Services Administration 1962.8.97 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 4th Floor, 36A

Exhibition Label

On receiving a commission for the Dolgeville, New York post office mural, Newell read extensively on the history of the Mohawk Valley, and found, he wrote, "some of the most interesting and exciting American material I have ever looked into." In Underground Railroad Newell captures a moment of democratic idealism important in Dolgeville history. His painting depicts an abolitionist farmer hurrying escaped slaves out of sight as dawn breaks at the Brockett Farm, one of two Underground Railroad stations near the Dolgeville village limits.

Special Delivery: Murals for the New Deal Era, 1988

Luce Center Label

James Newell had produced several public murals by 1940 when the U.S. Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts commissioned him to create a mural for the post office in Dolgeville, New York. He researched the history of Dolgeville before designing a mural for the post office. As he read about the Mohawk Valley, he wrote that he had found “some of the most interesting and exciting material I have ever looked into.” He decided to paint a scene of an abolitionist farmer helping escaped slaves as day breaks at Brockett Farm, one of the two Underground Railroad stops near Dolgeville. Newell chose a muted palette of browns, blues, and greens to convey the secrecy and danger involved in this activity. He structured his composition so that the expansive hills stretch into the background, symbolizing the long journey the runaway slaves had made through the night. Newell highlighted the heroism of the slaves and the people who helped them by showing a man leaning into lantern light to read a flyer offering a reward for his capture. He created the final piece, which can be seen today in the Dolgeville post office, using a technique known as fresco by painting on a thin, wet layer of plaster. (“Dolgeville Mural Painting Depicts Historic Scene,” Utica Observer Dispatch, August 11, 1941)


Ethnic - African-American

Figure group

History - United States - Civil War

History - United States - Underground Railroad

Landscape - New York - Dolgeville

Landscape - time - night

Occupation - other - slave

New Deal - Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture - New York State


paint - oil


About James Michael Newell

Born: Carnegie, Pennsylvania 1900 Died: 1985

More works in the collection by
James Michael Newell