To its planners, the first university library building, now Altgeld Hall, was an especially significant structure, tangible evidence that the industrial college of 1868 had been transformed into a respected institution of higher education. Of all elements of its design, none furnish more insight into the project than the four great allegorical paintings in the rotunda. More than artistic embellishment, they suggest by their very existence, as well as by their lofty themes, the university's commitment to scholarship and culture. The artist, Newton Alonzo Wells--educated at Syracuse University and in Paris at the Academie Julian under Bougureau, Laurens, and Benjamin-Constant--underscored the symbolic idea at the unveiling ceremonies in March 1900, saying that he meant his decorations to create an atmosphere of historical associations "so that those entering these halls should feel the spirit of the mighty past brooding here and inspiring to the emulation of its noblest achievement."
The murals are an integral part of the gracefully blended Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural motifs used throughout the building. Simple figures and shallow space establish a psychologically restful environment, while placid colors and smooth surfaces unify the separate areas of the room. Wells' labors took three forms: stenciled decorations in stylized organic shapes on virtually every capital, arch, frieze, and wall, and in imitation mosaics in the vestibule; medallion portraits-reminiscent of ancient Roman coins-of "America's greatest soldiers, statesman and scholars" around the first floor; and murals on the upper level of the rotunda.
All four paintings in the lunettes of the arches express the artist's conviction that control of one's emotions is a virtue, that calm, restrained individuals in a work of art convey not only an untroubled mood, but self-assurance as well. That attitude ultimately finds its source in state and school officials' profound confidence in the university's rapid growth and rising status. Since Wells wrote at length on the technique, subject matter, and meaning of his creations, as well as on his artistic inspirations, it is both instructive and interesting to know what he had to say.
He noted, for example, that he spent time making careful studies from models, experimenting with color schemes, preparing plaster walls, stretching and nailing canvas onto walls, and finally transferring the outline drawings to the canvas before applying paint. He found that a mixture of oils and dissolved white wax dried slowly and did not discolor. Another advantage of wax over turpentine was that it produced a "perfectly flat and lusterless surface, with a delicate and aerial bloom like that of real fresco; and not the least of its good qualities is its preserving influence upon the color, protecting it from the contact of coal-gas, the bete noire of decorators in our climate."
Thoughtful preparation also went into Wells' selection of subjects. Representing the College of Literature and Arts is The Sacred Wood of the Muses, meant to conjure up a glade of classical antiquity "where choice spirits might love to retire to listen to Homeric tales." Pythagoras, Plato, Phidias, or Pericles are suggested, Wells said, but did it matter if these "personages were actually separated by centuries of time?" Determined to produce "reposeful" compositions, he apparently responded to the pervasively serene work of the French artist Puvis de Chavannes, in particular his 1884 painting The Sacred Wood, Dear to tile Arts and Muses (now in the Art Institute of Chicago). Undoubtedly this work suggested title, arrangement, and colors, but in the course of various revisions Wells eliminated classical architecture, pressed figures closer to the picture plane, and transformed naturalistic landscape into stage sets with backdrop. Wells' "choice spirits" are of nineteenth-century vintage, their stilted, self-conscious poses reminiscent of living statues in collegiate Homeric tableaux.
Arcadia, for Agriculture, is a bucolic festival. Youths and maidens bear garlands at the sacred hearth of the hearthstone, "typical of the joys of love and courtship which lead to Hyman's altar, the foundation stone of the home." Behind them troop the family with its "loved burdens and happy cares guided by stalwart men and youths whose lustyhood speaks of a life of freedom and frugality." Wells' familiarity with Gari Melchers's murals of battle processions (for the 1893 Columbian Exposition and for the Library of Congress  is evident in figural and compositional elements that found their way into his painting. For the stallion led by a youth, it is likely he looked closely at details of the Parthenon frieze.
For the College of Science, Wells shows "seven virginal figures" at work in The Laboratory of Minerva. Minerva instructs from the Book of Knowledge. Around her are personifications of Geology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Astronomy, Biology, and Physics. The artist accommodated himself to American moral standards, avoiding the shifting drapery and unrestrained nudity relished by the French. Chitons might carelessly slip from shoulders, and limbs might be indicated under voluminous garb, but the women in the mural are fully dressed, their substantial forms covered in quasi-Greek garments very like those affected by sorority women pictured in university yearbooks of the day.
A decidedly unclassical scene distinguishes the last lunette, The Forge of Vulcan for the College of Engineering, from the rest. The mood "induced by historical association is suddenly dissipated" the artist wrote, "and in its stead we are brought face to face with the activities of the twentieth century." Making no attempt to idealize his steel-foundry workers--stocky, ordinary men absorbed in their task of forging great steamer shafts--Wells shows an actual engineering accomplishment. In an age of quickening technology and scientific demands, cultural tastemakers and their public continued to yearn for some remote, ideal past, yet The Forge of Vulcan, despite its anachronistic title, indicates an American iconography emerging. To judge by enthusiastic critical response in local and Chicago newspapers, this one of all four murals was found most compelling and relevant to everyday lives.
Altgeld Hall, built in 1897, has fared rather well on its exterior. Its four editions are restrained and in the spirit of the original structure. Not so with the interior rotunda, where unsightly partitioning destroyed its spatial integrity and eliminated the east reading room; where nondescript tan plaster replaced beautiful opalescent glass in the domed ceiling; and where dismal lighting and poor maintenance have compromised the murals' visual impact. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places-but sorely needs, and merits, restoration.
Newton Alonzo Wells stayed on at Illinois as a professor of art until his retirement in 1919. Besides exhibiting at several Paris salons, he painted murals for the Sangamon County Courthouse in Springfield, fllinois, and the Colonial Theatre in Boston. Eleven of his portraits, two of them in a special mosaic technique he devised, are at the University of Illinois.