Feature

1934: A New Deal for Artists

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is showing paintings by artists from the Public Works of Art Project, which was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the depression.

Smithsonian American Art Museum Washington, D.C.
Through Jan. 3, 2010

In December 1933, “the unemployment rate was sky-high and businesses were closing their doors” left and right, said Tim Taylor in Roll Call. That doom and gloom are evident everywhere in this exhibition of 55 oil paintings by the artists from the Public Works of Art Project, created that winter by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ivan Albright’s The Farmer’s Kitchen shows an old, wrinkled woman sitting in her kitchen; “her knuckles are swollen and red” as she attempts to cut a radish. Jacob Getlar Smith’s Snow Shovellers depicts African-American laborers working side by side with white men “in dressier overcoats and shoes,” now forced to take on manual labor to survive. “The first of many federal programs to promote and preserve American artistry” during the Great Depression, the program put painters to work creating scenes from American life, to be displayed in government buildings, public schools, and libraries.

These works “were intended to lift the spirits of a demoralized nation,” said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. So why “are so many of them so depressing?” What makes these pictures—“most by people you have never heard of”—more than propaganda is their emotional honesty. “There’s a pervasive feeling of, for lack of a better word, winter.” Painters such as Smith and Agnes Tait actually depicted snowy scenes. The farms rendered by Kenjiro Nomura and Robert A. Darragh “feature barns sitting empty and dark, devoid of people and animals.” Even Paul Kelpe’s modernistic Machinery (Abstract #2) is “a formal study of now-stilled gears.” Only in the chill blue sky at the end of Erle Loran’s Minnesota Highway is there “promise of better to come.” But it seems a long way off.

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