Credit Line: Commissioned as a joint project from the federal Public Works Project Administraiton and Iowa State College for the Library. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University.
Eight staircase panels depict 1930s technology and represent the major divisions of Iowa State College at the time: Agriculture, Engineering and Home Economics. The title refers to an 1840 quote by Daniel Webster, "When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization."
Grant Wood designed the murals and selected a team of fourteen students from the University of Iowa to paint them. The students' names are listed on the center panel. The panels, displayed first in Washington, D.C., were installed at their current location by staff from the Art Institute of Chicago.
The first panels completed are on the west wall of the staircase. A hay wagon and barn unify the murals with carefully balanced groupings of men and animals engaged in interrelated activities. The immaculate scene includes such decorative touches as nails in the barn and stitching and buttons in the overalls. These panels, illustrating ninteenth-century farming practices, commemorate agricultural history and are in sharp contrast to the engineering panels on the opposite wall.
The panels on the north wall represent the household arts. Like all Wood's work, they show his great care in capturing fine details, such as the patterns of the dresses, aprons and wallpaper and the grain in the wood. In keeping with the ideals of the 1930s, the panels depict the woman as honored in a domestic setting, particularly if she is a mother. Wood reinforced this concept by depicting the mother in a classic Madonna and child pose, complete with a swaddled infant.
The engineering panels on the east wall display a chemical experiment in progress, a dynamo and a bridge-planning project. In contrast with the other more traditional panels, these celebrate the industrial revolution and foreshadow the importance of technology in the future. The emphasis is not on the human forms, but rather on machines and systems, painted in high detail with intense accuracy.
In this mural, the pioneer chopping trees to clear fields is clearly based on Lincoln. Surely this image was intended not only as homage to Lincoln himself, but as a reminder to Iowans of the courage and endurance that was their heritage as Midwesterners (like Lincoln) and as Americans. In addition, it was Lincoln who had signed the Morrill Act establishing land grant colleges such as Iowa State. The creation of these colleges during the Civil War is regarded as an indication of Lincoln's faith in the future of the "united" United States. Lincoln's role in Iowa history, then, was something to which Petersen may have been particularly sensitive.