Art of the New Deal

"I, too, have a dream-to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City-something they cannot get from between the covers of books-some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music."

~ Franklin Roosevelt to Hendrik Willem Van Loon, January 4, 1938 


Michigan artist Alfred Castagne sketching WPA construction workers
[Photograph] Michigan artist Alfred Castagne sketching Works Progress Administration (WPA) construction workers, May 19, 1939.

FDR's New Deal provided federally-funded jobs for millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. These included jobs for tens of thousands of artists, including musicians, actors, dancers, writers, photographers, painters, and sculptors. Asked why the government should provide jobs for unemployed artists, New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins replied, "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people."

Government art programs rescued artists from poverty and despair. But they also served a larger purpose-to give all Americans access to art and culture. New Deal artists brought theater, music, and dance to every corner of the nation and created hundreds of thousands of paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. Their work continues to adorn public buildings throughout the country.

Labor by Manual G. Silberger

LaborĀ­

Manuel G. Silberger
Lithograph  1936
Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.286


 

Coal Hopper at 14th Street, by Mabel Wellington Jack, 1937

Coal Hopper at 14th Street

Mabel Wellington Jack  1937
Lithograph
New York City Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.261


 

Portrait of a Miner by William S. Schwartz, 1938

Portrait of a Miner

William S. Schwartz  1938
Lithograph
MO 1956.285


 

South Side of Chicago by Todros Geller, 1937

South of Chicago

Todros Geller  1937
Wood engraving
Illinois Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.314


The Index of American Design

One important art project undertaken during the New Deal was the Index of American Design (IAD). Nearly 400 artists were put to work locating three-dimensional examples of American design from around the nation. They made renderings of objects ranging from weather vanes and glassware to religious icons, tavern signs, quilts and furniture. In the process they amassed a rich record for future study and artistic inspiration.

WPA artist Mangnus Fossum The Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico was a typical IAD undertaking. Artists from New Mexico crisscrossed their state searching for
"a cross section of the characteristic type of material made in New Mexico during Colonial times." They then created faithful color reproductions of these artworks. Most of the images in the Portfolio are reproductions of religious folk art painted on wood panels (retablos) and three-dimensional religious icons (bultos).

Only 200 copies of the Portfolio were produced. The FDR Library has a complete set, consisting of 50 hand-colored woodblock prints. Four of these prints are displayed here.  

[Photograph] WPA artist Magnus Fossum copying the 1770
coverlet "Boston Town Pattern" for the Index of American Design,
Coral Gables, Florida, February 1940.

 

Hand colored woodblock print, 1938

Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico

Hand colored woodblock print  1938
Federal Art Project of New Mexico, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.237.01

This reproduction depicts the title page of the book of marriages at the Mission Church in Jemez.


 

Vase

 Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico

Hand colored woodblock print  1938
Federal Art Project of New Mexico, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.237.16

Reproduction of a panel form in Chimayo's El Santuario Church.


 

Hand colored woodblock print, 1938

Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico

Hand colored woodblock print  1938
Federal Art Project of New Mexico, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.237.50

Reproduction of an image of the Sacred Heart.


 

Hand colored woodblock print, 1938

Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico

Hand colored woodblock print  1938
Federal Art Project of New Mexico, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1945.237.6

Reproduction of scenes from the lives of saints that adorn the main altarpiece of a church in Santa Cruz.

 


 

Weathervane

Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania

Silkscreen print  1938
Federal Art Project of Pennsylvania, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1945. 236.4

One of fifteen prints in an Index of American Design portfolio titled Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania.


 

Shiphead

Figurehead for the Lady Blessington

Watercolor
Jerome Hoxie  Late 1930s
Federal Art Project of Connecticut, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1942.35.1

The Federal Art Project of Connecticut produced a series of watercolors depicting early ship carvings for the Index of American Design.


 

Porthole cover

Figurehead from an unidentified ship

Watercolor
Victor Muollo  Late 1930s
Federal Art Project of New York City, Works Progress Administration (WPA)
MO 1956.231

One of a series of watercolors of early ship carvings produced by the Federal Art Project of Massachusetts for the Index of American Design. This carving served as an ornament for a porthole cover.


New Deal Murals

One of the most enduring artistic legacies of the New Deal are hundreds of colorful murals that adorn post offices, libraries, public schools, and other government buildings around the nation.

One example can be found in the lobby of the Hyde Park Post Office, located on Route 9, two miles north of the FDR Library. The mural depicts scenes from the history of this area. It was created by Dutchess County artist, Olin Dows. Dows was a friend and neighbor of Franklin Roosevelt and the President took an active interest in the mural's design. The Library has an extensive collection of Dows' study sketches, drawings, and paintings for this mural and another mural he made for the Rhinebeck Post Office. The collection documents every stage in the design process. This panel features several samples from the Dows collection that focus on one section of the Hyde Park Post Office mural.

 

Mural Color Study

Final color study, Stoutenburgh panel
Olin Dows  1941
Section of Fine Arts, Treasury Department
MO 1968.15.1


 

Mixed media drawing for Stoutenburgh panel, by Olin Dows, 1941

Mixed media drawing for Stoutenburgh panel
Olin Dows  1941
Section of Fine Arts, Treasury Department
MO 1968.15.17

An early sketch of the figure that appears in the foreground of the final color study above.


 

Postcard depicting Stoutenburgh panel

Postcard depicting Stoutenburgh panel
ca. 1940s
MO 1968.15.15

This postcard features a black and white image of the Stoutenburgh panel as it appears (in color) in the lobby of the Hyde Park Post Office.

 
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