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Josephine Truslow Adams (1897 - 1969)

City Hall, April 14, 1945, oil on canvas board, 1945, 24 x 18 inches, signed lower right; verso bears a label with the following: “Paintings of the Year, Pepsi-Cola Annual Art Competition 194_, Name of Artist: Josephine Truslow Adams, Address: 441 West 21st Street Apt 3 New York, Title of Work: City Hall, April 14, 194_, Medium: Oil, Price: 1200, Insurance Value 500, Return Address: 441 West 21st St Apt. 3, New York, Fill in this label COMPLETELY and attach securely to upper right hand corner of back of painting before delivery to the Regional Jury, Do not write in this space;” a note card reads: “Josephine Truslow Adams. Oil painting on canvas board. Bought 1946? By Suki, who studied with her. Painting is of NYC City Hall, Pres. Roosevelt’s memorial. Josephine Adams was an active communist who tricked Eleanor Roosevelt into thinking she could give the president inside info on Earl Browder, the head of the Communist Party. She actually didn’t know him.”; the name “Suki Berg” is inscribed several times on the verso of the frame; Provenance: City Hall, April 14, 1945 was owned by a well-known New York/California artist, Suki Berg (1917 – 2010), who is primarily known as a printmaker.


About the Painting

City Hall, April 14, 1945 serves as an intriguing historical artifact that brings together in one painting insights into a little known, but fascinating part of the United States government’s uneasy relationship with the American Communist Party, and one unstable, left-leaning artist’s participation in America’s largest corporate sponsored art competitions. To help understand the painting, please read the artist’s biography below. The scene depicts the memorial service held at New York’s City Hall Plaza two days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. The American flag flies at half-mast below a stormy and churning El Greco sky. The rain-soaked crowds cower below umbrellas and unfolded newspapers while a mysterious cross-shaped figure shrouded by a white-grey boiling cloud hovers in the upper left, perhaps representing the President’s passing spirit. Presumably painted soon after the memorial, City Hall, April 14, 1945, was likely a deeply personal painting for Adams -- an attempt to preserve the loss not only of the President who had guided the country through the dual challenges of the Great Depression and the Second World War, but also the fantasy world she created for herself. It was a fantasy world in which Adams was at the center of the two great political forces of the 20th century – liberal western capitalist democracy and international communism.

There is a healthy dose of irony in the fact that Adams submitted City Hall, April 14, 1945, to the “Paintings of the Year Competition” sponsored by the Pepsi-Cola Corporation in 1946. As part of its efforts to overtake the much more powerful and popular Coca Cola Company, Pepsi organized a series of annual art competitions between 1944 and 1948. Following on the heels of the likes of IBM whose CEO Thomas Watson viewed such corporate sponsored competitions as “art for industry,” Pepsi initiated its own program to identify new American paintings which could be reproduced as part of mass market advertising calendars for the company’s products. From its 1944 competition alone, Pepsi produced 650,000 copies of its advertising calendar. That Adams, a life-long, self-proclaimed leftist, would submit her work for an advertising competition for a soft drink aimed at “John Q. Public” presents a significant irony. Perhaps it is explained by a simple desire for prize money or by the muddled thought processes of a disturbed mind. And then again, maybe the explanation rests more with yet another of Adam’s apparently life-long desires, to be recognized and at the center of discussion among people in high places – in this case, among the country’s greatest artists.

About the Artist

Josephine Truslow Adams was a direct descendant of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, she came from a successful, cultured, and cosmopolitan family, with several of Adams’ siblings achieving fame as scholars (Louise Adams Holland) and poets (Leonie Fuller Adams (Troy)). Adams graduated from the Pratt Institute and from 1934 to 1941, she served as an art instructor at Swarthmore College. During her time at Swarthmore, Adams joined a number of communist party front organizations drawn largely by her support of the loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. In January, 1939, Adams received nationwide press coverage for her efforts to lift the US arms embargo against Republican Spain. In these efforts, she was joined by other artists like Rockwell Kent, who was photographed with Adams in several publications. Adams was an active participant in the Committee to Defend the People’s Rights, which provided legal defense for communists charged with crimes, as well as serving as the local Delaware County President of the American League for Peace and Democracy. In 1941, she testified before Congress in opposition to legislation which would authorize the broader use of wire taps. During rambling testimony, she claimed that her own telephone had been tapped, though she declined to place blame with any specific institution. Two weeks after Adam’s Congressional testimony, she again made headlines when Swarthmore elected not to renew her teaching assignment, all the while claiming that it had nothing to do with Adams’ politics or Congressional testimony. For her part, Adams claimed the dismissal “climaxes my past two years of very intensive fighting for civil liberties.”

Prior to her dismissal from Swarthmore, Adams had met Eleanor Roosevelt through a mutual friend, Ester Lape. Ms. Lape had commissioned a painting from Adams to present to the First Lady. Adams and Mrs. Roosevelt met in person at Swarthmore in 1941 and over the course of the war years corresponded with one another. Adams also sent a second of her paintings to the First Lady. Around the same time, Adams became involved with the Citizens Committee to Free Earl Browder and the National Free Browder Congress, two organizations dedicated to obtaining the release of the American Communist Party head who was serving a four-year sentence for passport fraud. Adams wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt asking for Browder’s pardon but received only a non-committal response. After Browder was freed, not as a result of any of her influence, Adams met him at a gala in July 1942, and convinced him that she had been instrumental in his release. Leveraging her relationship with the First Lady, Adams convinced Browder that she could act as an intermediary to the White House and directly to the President. Mrs. Roosevelt did pass several of Adams’ letters to the President though it is doubtful either Mrs. Roosevelt or the President gave them much credence. It is more likely, however, that Browder did believe that his messages were reaching the President and that what he heard from Adams in response represented the President’s position on a variety of topics. In reality, Adams, who was suffering from severe mental illness, was simply making up much of what she told Browder and forging letters supposedly from FDR to her. It is surprising that the sophisticated Browder fell for such a simple fraud, but perhaps he so wanted to be connected to the Roosevelt administration to further his dream of close cooperation between the US and the USSR in the post-war period that he convinced himself to believe.

Despite Adams’ mental instability, which was well known to the FBI by the early 1940s, her claimed connections to both well-known communists and the Roosevelts again surfaced during the "Red Scare" of the early 1950s. The testimony of several former communist party members before the Subversive Activities Control Board in Washington DC in 1953, named Adams as the go-between for FDR and Browder. In response, Adams claimed to the media “I never carried such messages at all” and that she was merely “an obscure and humble artist . . . . not a mysterious cloak and dagger figure . . . . and not a communist.” Later, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee solicited testimony from Adams in February, 1957, again placing Adams at the center of a nationwide political discussion. During her testimony, Adams reversed course by again telling the same stories about being a close friend, confidant and intermediary of both FDR and Earl Browder. Soon afterwards in the late 1950s, Adams was committed to the Norristown Sanitarium in Pennsylvania where she died more than a decade later.


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