James Watrous – The Library

James Watrous

(American, 1908-1999)

The Library

Murano gold Byzantine glass and colored smalti mosaic
12 x 20 ft.
Commissioned with funds provided by the University of Wisconsin Foundation, the Thomas Evans Brittingham Trust, and the Classes of 1959 and 1960

James Watrous’ The Library is a colorful mosaic of thousands of individual hand-cut glass tesserae. Archaic symbols for the elements (earth, air, fire, and water), the solar system (sun, moon, planets, and stars), as well as the zodiac are distributed within a central golden belt across the picture plane. These symbols acknowledge the many ways people sought to understand and organize the world. As noted in the accompanying pamphlet on the artwork, Watrous believed that “all libraries, past and present, preserve and transmit human perceptions.” By depicting these fundamental symbols, Watrous suggests the library’s role in archiving and communicating human identity. In doing so he also indicates that libraries serve an essential role across different societies.

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.


The Library is located inside the main entrance of Memorial Library off State Street Mall.  The mosaic is located to the left of the information desk.


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 - The Library