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I PAINT WHAT I SEE A Ballad of Artistic Integrity by E. B. White

Updated on August 3, 2017

Diego Rivera's Ill-fated Rockefeller Center Mural

Diego Rivera

E.B. White

Nelson Rockefeller

Rockefeller Center

John D. Rockefeller

E.B. white
E.B. white

I Paint What I See, E.B. White

"What do you paint when you paint a wall?"

Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.

"Do you paint just anything there at all?

"Will there be any doves or a tree in fall?

"Or a hunting scene like an English hall?"

"I paint what I see," said Rivera.

"What are the colors you use when you paint?"

Said John D.'s grandson, Nelson.

"Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?

"If you do is it terribly red, or faint?

"Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?"

"I paint what I paint," said Rivera.

"Whose is that head I see on my wall?"

Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.

"Is it anyone's head whom we know, at all?

"A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?

"Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?

"Or is it the head of a Russian?"

"I paint what I think," said Rivera.

"I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,

"I paint what I think," said Rivera,

"And the thing that is dearest in life to me

"In a bourgeois hall is Ingegrity;

"However,...

"I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'

"And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln,

"I could even give you McCormick's reaper

"And still not make my art much cheaper.

"But the head of Lenin has got to stay

"Or my friends will give me the bird today

"The bird, the bird, forever."

"It's not good taste in a man like me,"

Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,

"To question an artist's integrity

"Or mention a practical thing like a fee,

"But I know what I like to a large degree

"Though art I hate to hamper;

"For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks

"You painted a radical. I say shucks,

"I never could rent the offices.

"For this, as you know, is a public hall

"And people want doves or a tree in fall,

"And though your art I dislike to hamper,

"I owe a little to God and Gramper,

"And after all,

"It's my wall...."

"We'll see if it is," said Rivera.

[First published in The New Yorker, May 20, 1933 during the controversy over Diego Rivera's mural in Rockefeller Center which was destroyed the following year on February 9, 1934.]

If you like this poem, try "Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme" and "A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme" by Calvin Trillin, the master of topical political poetry with an edge.]

Diego Rivera Mural
Diego Rivera Mural | Source
Frozen Assets In Frozen Assets, Rivera coupled his appreciation for New York’s distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of the city's economic inequities. The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable
Frozen Assets In Frozen Assets, Rivera coupled his appreciation for New York’s distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of the city's economic inequities. The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable | Source
The Revolutionaries, David Alfaro Siquieros, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
The Revolutionaries, David Alfaro Siquieros, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
David Alfaro Siquieros, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
David Alfaro Siquieros, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Jose Clemente Orosco, Cartharsis, Pallacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
Jose Clemente Orosco, Cartharsis, Pallacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

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    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      6 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Thanks for your comment. It's nice to hear a good word from a knowledgeable person. I'm a Siquieros fan. Some of his murals and paintings are more powerful revolutionary statements than Rivera's. [You may know of my sister-in-law, Susan M. Deeds, formerly a Latin American history professor and author of several books and articles on the history of Mexico. I saw her recently and bought copies of two of her books. I'll look for a copy of your book.] I've visited Mexico many times--the first to Puerto Vallarta in 1964 when "Night of the Iguana" was being filmed.

      I just ordered a copy of your book from Amazon.

    • profile image

      D. Anthony White 

      6 years ago

      As a historian specializing in Mexican and Latin American history, and the author of Siqueiros, Biography of a Revolutionary Artist (Book Surge, 2009), I was particularly interested in your Hubpage on Diego Rivera's Rockefeller Center mural and E.B. White's poem on the "Battle." While emphasizing the work and life of Siqueiros, my biography provides background on the mural movement and the other artists and the polemics between them. It also includes brief descriptions of the censorship or attacks on murals by Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera in the United States. Ironically, it is MOMA which is featuring an exhibit on Rivera at a time when it major corporate sponsors are under scrutiny for creating conditions reminiscent of the 1930s.

      Thanks for posting this reminder of an interesting cultural moment from the past.

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      The Museum of Modern Art is featuring several of Diego Rivera's murals which depict revolution in Mexico in the 1930s and are again relevant in today's world of revolution in many countries including the US.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/18/arts/design/dieg...

    • Ralph Deeds profile imageAUTHOR

      Ralph Deeds 

      7 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Brian, thanks for your comment and correction.

    • profile image

      Brian Holmes 

      7 years ago

      Yes, great stuff, thanks very much!

      The last painting pictured is actually "Catharsis" by José Clemente Orozco, in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. It stands opposite the Rivera mural entitled Man at the Crossroads - which is a recreation, with a few adaptations, of the destroyed Rockefeller Center work.

    • profile image

      RD 

      8 years ago

      Great stuff, Ralph; thanks again for sharing!

      Try this link: http://home.comcast.net/~robertdente/LAND&SPIR...

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