We have been busy this summer inspecting every inch of the theater, getting ready for the coming restoration. One of the most amazing things about the Byrd remains its priceless set of eleven hand-painted oil murals. We have never paid too much attention to them before, but now, due to some careful research, we can tell their story in much more detail.
They were painted by Brounet Studios of New York, New York. A hands-on director, Arthur Brounet, was a highly-trained French artist who specialized, not only in painting murals for theaters all over the country, but in pulling together the harmony that once existed between between the carpet, curtains, marble, seat coverings, and plaster ornament. The multi-colored and gilded decorative finishes on the interior of the theater are mostly intact. The collection of murals at the Byrd is one of very few of Brounet’s works to survive. It is certainly one of the best preserved sets of academic theatrical murals to survive in the US.
At the Byrd, the murals turn out to contain a specially coded theme- an allegory intended by Brounet to signal to the educated viewer that motion pictures were here to stay- and were, in fact, the newest form of drama.
The three paintings over the concession stand are the keys to understanding the whole group. The central figure, with her wind-blown red cloak, frowning mask, and palm of victory, is the muse of tragedy, outlined by a setting sun. The women to either side stand in for (1) wild inspiration and (2) calm clarity. These two basic human responses were thought to have combined in ancient Greece to give birth to tragedy, the highest form of drama.
The murals in the theater are landscapes full of fountains, villas, gardens, and statues seen through arches and openings in the walls. They all depict the same timeless, mythological world, backed by a range of pink-lit mountains, glimpsed as just the sun sets in time for the film to begin.
To read a more thorough article on the theater’s decorative program, visit Urban Scale Richmond here.