75 years ago, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Public Works of Art Project.
Artists from across the United States who participated in the programme, which lasted only six months from mid-December 1933 to June 1934, were encouraged (and paid) to depict “the American Scene”.
There’s an exhibition currently showing at The Smithsonian American Art Museum that shows a wealth of pictures from the era, and you can see a selection of them below.
As far as I can make out, there isn’t a description anywhere on the site about how the artists themselves were selected and commissioned. Such information would provide us with a fascinating insight into the cultural imperatives of the ruling elite of the time, and how it projected political and social values to the population through art.
Roosevelt’s brief was simple:
New Deal art would be art that was: …native, human, eager and alive… that was painted for the people of this country by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.
The majority of the paintings and artworks were destined for exhibition in public places, after all, so it wouldn’t be too remote to suppose that there was some common attitude, or message, that the government might have wanted to convey to the populace.
Many of the painters do indeed use a sort of documentary, or reporter’s, approach to the people and events they show in their pictures and murals, which makes a common approach seem likely.
It might also be that the artists were trying to give some sort of value for money to the people who commissioned them in the PWA program, or maybe they were moved to paint the victims of the depression through fellow feeling for the poor and dispossessed.
After all, it’s not unusual for artists to be familiar with the breadline at the best of times.
My selection has been guided solely by aesthetics, rather than any themed messages the artists might have wanted to broadcast to the world.
Paper Workers by Douglass Crockwell
(Click all these images to enlarge them)
“Douglass Crockwell spent a good part of his career creating illustrations and advertisements for the Saturday Evening Post. His paintings appeared in promotions for Friskies dog food and in a poster for the American Relief for Holland, which won him a gold medal from the Art Director’s Club in 1946. Crockwell created murals and posters for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, and also experimented with short flip-card films that could be viewed through a mutoscope. A few years before he died, Crockwell estimated that he had drawn four hundred full-page images, of which more than three billion prints had been made” (New York Times, December 2, 1968).
Here’s how the deal worked for the artists:
Between 1934 and 1942, for an average monthly check of $53 ($23 per month in some southern states), ten thousand artists produced (in round numbers) 100,000 easel paintings, 18,000 sculptures, 13,000 prints, 4,000 murals-and innumerable posters and photographs. These statistics do not include commissions for work in twelve hundred new post offices, in courthouses, in buildings for federal departments, for state and local facilities, and parks. Work-relief organized and funded by the New Deal was important to those who got work, and both the work-relief and commissioning programs were important as well to those citizens into whose lives professional art was introduced for the first time. As early as September 1934, Roosevelt’s schoolmate and friend, the painter George Biddle, could write with considerable justice that the New Deal had made “American art conscious as never before” and made the artist as never before “conscious of the fact that he is of service to the community.”
E Martin Hennings Homeward Bound
(Born: Penns Grove, New Jersey 1886 Died: Taos, New Mexico 1956)
Barber Shop by Ilya Bolotowski
(Born: St. Petersburg, Russia 1907 – Died: New York, New York 1981)
Ross Dickinson Valley Farms
(Born: Santa Ana, California 1903 Died: La Jolla, California 1978)
Leon Kroll Summer, New York
Poor old Leon only received a measly 53 dollars a month for this type of gruelling work. (Sorry Leon; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.)
Moses Soyer, below, was quite happy to focus on other artists who were engaged in the PWAP.
Moses Soyer – Artists on WPAP
During 1935 and 1936, I was employed by the WPA as a supervising artist to execute ten portable murals, the theme of which was `Children at Play.´ I was given a beautiful studio on 59th Street [in New York City] and a group of artists and models to assist me. The painting represents my assistants working on the murals after [my designs] had been traced onto canvas. . . . In the foreground my model Mary Anne is posing for Jacob Friedland, who built all the easels, props, stretched the canvases, etc. and kept us all amused and in good spirits by his stories and jokes.
Gale Stockwell – Parkville Main Street.
Gale Stockwell was a cartoonist for his high school paper, then studied at the Kansas City Art Institute. In 1933 he was hired by the Public Works of Art Project, which paid a small wage to many struggling artists during the Depression. He lost track of a lot of his work after giving it to the government and many years later was not only surprised to find one of his images on a jigsaw puzzle, but also discovered that this same painting was hanging at the White House! Stockwell worked in advertising until 1954, when he retired to devote all of his time to painting colorful images of Missouri towns and landscapes.
Millard Sheets – Tenement Flats
Saul Berman – Riverfront
This painting shows people on make work programmes clearing snow. Eight years later this New York waterfront was booming with ship building operations for World War 2.
Unknown – Underpass, New York
Paul Kauver Smith, – Sky Pond.
From this view of the Sky Pond, we can now lift our eyes to the Passing Clouds….
Dederic Brandes Stuber – Passing Clouds
This selection emphasises the preponderance of easel paintings produced under the PWAP. There were many other initiatives to decorate public buildings, from the Coit Tower in San Francisco, to the innumerable government owned Post Offices spread across the American nation.
If this current economic nadir should ever match the severity of the 1934 Depression, I wonder which artists might be supported by today’s governments, in order to keep the painterly arts alive?
Or would all the money be siphoned off to the same “merchant bankers” whose greed caused the problems in the first place?