How American Artists Got a New Deal

Posted February 27, 2009 at 3:28pm

Correction Appended

In 1934, Italy won the World Cup. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. And in the United States, as the Great Depression hit home, great art was created.

In its new exhibit of Depression-era oil paintings, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is taking visitors back to a time that might sound a lot like today, when the unemployment rate was sky-high and businesses were closing their doors. The art exhibit, “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” portrays the spirit of a distressed yet optimistic America.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Public Works of Art Project, under the Civil Works Administration. It was the first of many federal programs to promote and preserve American artistry by creating a system that would not only pay artists for their work, but also prevent independent artists from going under.

Artists from across the United States were encouraged to participate in the project, and there were no guidelines, which meant selected artists had complete freedom to interpret American life in 1934.

More than 3,700 artists participated during the program’s brief existence from December 1933 to June 1934.

The president and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt showcased 32 paintings in the White House, including Ray Strong’s “Golden Gate Bridge,” which shows the building of the famous San Francisco bridge.

Museum Director Elizabeth Broun described the collection of 56 oil paintings as “happily realistic” in their depictions of how people lived through such dire economic conditions. But more important, Broun said, was that there was a program in place to support young talent.

The artists “were honored to be treated as workers. They were excited that their work was to be viewed in a public place,” she said, pointing out that many of the painters were in their 20s and 30s and had not yet established a reputation.

Back then, the paintings were displayed in public buildings, including federal office buildings, schools, libraries and even the White House and Capitol.

The paintings are arranged in eight different broad categories, including American life, city life, labor, and nature, which show everything from a group of men hard at work cutting ice in upstate New York to cityscapes.

A painting by Ivan Albright titled “The Farmer’s Kitchen” displays an old woman sitting in a chair in her kitchen. The woman’s face is full of wrinkles; the look on her face is one of despair.

Most telling are her hands. The woman has a knife in her hand to cut a radish, but her knuckles are swollen and red.

The program only drew a handful of African-American painters. Broun speculated that many black artists may not have known about the program or possibly felt that their work would not have been found eligible simply because of their race.

Jacob Getlar Smith, who painted a scene of eight men on their way to shovel snow in “Snow Shovellers.”

Centered in the painting is a black man with a shovel in his hand standing tall, while a group of men behind him walk with their heads looking downward. The dichotomy portrays one man prepared for hard labor, while another is dressed in office clothing; the men in dressier overcoats and shoes have likely been laid off from their office jobs and are shoveling snow as a means of income.

Roger Kennedy, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, said the artwork helped the country rediscover itself. He added that the paintings were uplifting and brought the soul of America back to life.

Kennedy, 82, said he was too young at the time to remember the Great Depression, but that art played a significant role in the country’s response to those economic times.

“Art was a part of the New Deal throughout the New Deal,” Kennedy said. “It was a rediscovery of the American spirit.”

The exhibit will run through Jan. 3, 2010.

Correction: March 2, 2009

The article misidentified Roger Kennedy’s title. He is director emeritus of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In addition, the article incorrectly identifed Jacob Getlar Smith as African-American.