After a lifetime of waiting, grandson views giant mural

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 2009

As John Oberteuffer stepped into the U.S. District Courtroom in Vicksburg’s former Crawford Street post office, he paused to absorb his first glimpse of the mural he had heard about since childhood.

“Oh my goodness,” gasped his wife, Katharine, as she gazed up at the 12-foot-by-14-foot oil on canvas painting that dominates the rear wall of the courtroom. “There’s your father.”

The couple had traveled to Vicksburg from Lexington, Mass., where Oberteuffer is retired from a career in speech technology.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Oberteuffer’s grandmother, Henriette Amiard Oberteuffer, was commissioned via the Works Progress Administration around 1935 to paint the mural, titled “Vicksburg, Its Character and Industries.”

The broad canvas depicts loggers, educators, steamers on the Mississippi River loaded with bales of cotton and stately Southern homes sprawled beneath the city’s famed courthouse — as well as Oberteuffer’s father, Karl, in a tank top and with a shovel in hand.

The mural has hung in the courtroom since the late 1930s, but most in Vicksburg have never seen it. Through the years, the federal courtroom in the postal building has been used less and less. Federal judges use courtrooms in Jackson and Natchez most of the time and what was Vicksburg’s central postal facility and federal office building is now privately owned.

“I’ve heard about this mural my whole life, but I’ve only seen black and white pictures of it,” said Oberteuffer. “It’s very special to finally see it in person and in color, and it’s wonderful to know it has a future.”

Its future will be as the centerpiece of a ballroom in a planned luxury hotel, said the building’s owner, Shirley Waring.

Oberteuffer became interested in seeing one of his grandmother’s last works of art last fall.

“When I finally tracked it down, I was delighted to learn of everything going on here,” he said. “There really couldn’t be a better scenario for this mural.”

The U.S. Department of the Treasury owns the majority of the estimated 225,000 works of art that were commissioned throughout the country during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s post-Depression, New Deal administration. When a federal building is sold containing a WPA artwork such as “Vicksburg, Its Character and Industries,” the new owner must agree to maintain the art and make it available for public viewing. Waring said she hopes to incorporate a full gallery into the hotel — which she plans to open by 2011 — and would like to work with Oberteuffer to bring an exhibit of his entire family’s art to Vicksburg. 

Works of art commissioned in the federal jobs programs, including large murals, were common in courthouses. Some in the South became controversial in the 1970s and 1980s because they depicted whites as aristocrats and laborers, but blacks only in servant roles, such as picking cotton. Draperies were purchased to hide many. Although the Vicksburg mural is an “Old South” tableau, none of its scenes have provoked complaints about stereotyping.

Henriette Amiard Oberteuffer was not the only artist in her family. Born in 1878 in Le Harve, France, she was already an accomplished artist when she met Philadelphia painter George Oberteuffer in Paris in 1905. The couple’s son, Karl, was artistically trained in France and went on to become a watercolor artist in the United States when the family immigrated following World War I.

While Henriette and George Oberteuffer lived in Memphis for a period, John said he is not sure if his grandparents ever visited Vicksburg. He suspects the mural was painted in Gloucester, Mass.

“She really had a appreciation for Southern culture and Southern living, and it’s possible she incorporated her experiences and the people she knew in Memphis into the painting — or she may very well have taken a trip to Vicksburg,” Oberteuffer said, noting he and his wife are looking forward to making a second trip to the city when Waring’s hotel opens.


Contact Steve Sanoski at