James Watrous – Ancient Commerce and Contemporary Commerce

James Watrous

(American, 1908-1999)

Ancient Commerce and Contemporary Commerce

Murano gold Byzantine glass and colored smalti mosaic
8 x 11 ft. and 8 x 12 ft.
Commissioned with funds provided by the University of Wisconsin Humanistic Foundation, Howard L. Smith Bequest, and the Commerce Building Fund.

Displayed on opposing sides of a busy hallway in Ingraham Hall, James Watrous’ mosaics Ancient Commerce and Contemporary Commerce are deep in conversation with each other. Both are rich with icons that can be decoded through nearby plaques. Ancient Commerce presents a collection of symbols related to trade along the ancient Mediterranean Sea including: horse traders, gold weighers, sword markers, oil merchants, and Mercury, the god of merchants. A river with ancient trade ships snakes through the scene. Watrous flattens each form with an angularity reminiscent of both archaic Byzantine mosaics and twentieth-century modernity.

Although equally bright and colorful, Contemporary Commerce on the opposing wall displays entirely different economic modes and a slightly different style. The mural is wrought with motifs referring to modern trade. Images of large chemical molecules intersecting a bushel of grains are centered in the picture plane along with symbols for international trade fairs at lower center and commerce research at upper left. Four oval maps representing world trade make up the background. Watrous ties the two panels together, despite their divergent imagery. A meandering river runs through Contemporary Commerce, as it does in the other panel, which includes symbols of the sublime such as the sun, moon, and stars. Connecting both mosaics in this manner indicates that Old World customs remain at the heart of modern life.

James Watrous was associated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison for nearly seventy years. After receiving his BA, MA, and PhD at the university, he became a professor of art and art history. He was a vigorous advocate for the arts and collections stewardship. Considered the “father of the Elvehjem,” Watrous was the driving force behind the fund-raising, planning, and construction of the university’s Elvehjem Art Center, now the Chazen Museum of Art. He is also the namesake of the James Watrous Gallery at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison. As an artist, he is best known for his large-scale murals and mosaics, notably the Paul Bunyan mural in the Memorial Union. Watrous posthumously received a Wisconsin Visual Lifetime Achievement Award and continues to be remembered through the several art installations on UW-Madison’s campus.


Ancient Commerce and Contemporary Commerce are located in a hallway within the southwestern wing of Ingraham Hall. For accessible entry, follow the diagonal sidewalk off North Charter Street toward the building’s basement entrance. Upon entry Ancient Commerce is directly to the right and Contemporary Commerce is down the hall to the left, adjacent to lecture hall B10.


Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, James Watrous.

Select Bibliography by Watrous:
Watrous, James. A Century of American Printmaking, 1880-1980. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Watrous, James. “Universities and the Visual Arts.” Art Journal Vol. 23, No. 1 (Autumn, 1963): 1, 58-60.
Watrous, James. The Craft of Old Master Drawings. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.
Watrous, James. A Century of Capricious Collecting: 1877-1970, From the Gallery in Science Hall to the Elvehjem Museum of Art. Madison: The Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 1987.

James Watrous - Ancient Commerce