The October 1929 stock market crash unleashed a severe economic shockwave across the United States, sweeping through financial systems and citizens without a social safety net to support them.
In the 1932 presidential election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in a landslide victory. Roosevelt’s vision of a New Deal to bring about change was put into motion with the aim of strengthening our financial systems and with programs designed to employ the masses and develop infrastructure.
The New Deal had a wide range of work programs. One such program, the Work Project Administration’s Federal Art Project, changed the course of art in the United States. From 1935 to 1943, WPA artists—painters, photographers, printmakers, illustrators, and more—from diverse backgrounds worked in a variety of styles and subjects. The dominant theme and the main focus of the artists during these challenging years was social realism.
On January 27, Swann Auction Galleries will feature Artists of The WPA, exploring the themes, motivations and artists that defined the New Deal era as part of the many agencies that formed during that time. Capturing vernacular architecture for the rise of the modern city, elevating the visual and performing arts, interior scenes from domestic servants to billiard halls—enabled artists to paint, print, and photograph to get ahead in a time of great turmoil.
As many as 10,000 WPA artists have helped shape a modern American identity that captures life in all its diversity, an identity rooted in pride and tenacity. These images gave identity and narrative to the victims of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and allowed a nation to better identify with fellow Americans who were experiencing significant forms of hardship.
The following is a selection of WPA art from the Swann event, with contributions from Harold Porcher, Swann’s director of modern and post-war art.
Artists from the Federal Arts Project documented a new way of life – a modern America that offered a representation of what the nation looked like and how your neighbors lived. Sublime images were captured to document the determination and tenacity of the American spirit.
Preparations for the auction
In 1941, the president of the American Tobacco Company approached then-director of the New York gallery Associated American Artists, Reeves Lewenthal, to select leading American scene painters to travel to the American Southeast to study the planting, harvesting, curing, and auctioning of tobacco plants in to capture paintings. Among the nineteen artists who received commissions for this project were Arnold Blanch, Aaron Bohrod and Ernest Fiene. These paintings appeared in advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes from 1942 to 1947. In the 1940s, more than 1.5 million American farms were dedicated to supplying the tobacco industry.
Girls in Gees Bend, Alabama
“Girls in Gees Bend, Alabama, is an impressive half-length portrait of Artelia Bendolph, staring into an unknown distance. The Kutcha house window is insulated with old newspaper clippings about domesticity. In February 1937, the Farm Security Administration hired Arthur Rothstein to photograph Gee’s Bend, a former plantation that had become an isolated African-American community of sharecroppers. Rothstein’s picture emphasizes the difficult but sometimes picturesque living conditions rather than any signs of progress. Gee’s Bend is renowned today for the exquisite craftsmanship of its quilting tradition.” Corey Serrant, AdministratorAfrican American Art, Swann Auction Galleries.
This painting, depicting a Pelham Line (#6) train full of passengers, illustrates the importance of a strong infrastructure with affordable housing and transportation – it was painted around 1935 in the midst of the American Depression.
Harlem Street Dance
Elizabeth Olds (1896–1991) was an American artist known for her work on the development of screen printing as a fine art medium. She was a painter and illustrator but is best known as a printmaker using silkscreen, woodcut and lithographic processes. In 1926 she was the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. She studied with George Luks, was a social realist and worked for the Public Works of Art Project and the Federal Art Project during the Great Depression. In her later career, Olds wrote and illustrated six children’s books.
Jackson Pollock was an influential American painter and the leading force behind the Abstract Expressionist movement in the art world. His “Stacking Hay” reveals an early moment in Pollock’s career under his painting teacher Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he studied from 1930 to 1933. Benton’s influence is clear, but ‘Stacking Hay’ also suggests the dynamism Pollock himself would develop during his own time with the WPA, where he was exposed to the murals and styles that became his 1940s drip and action painting.
Wood was one of the WPA’s best-known muralists, and rose to prominence after his painting “American Gothic” won a bronze medal at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood always wanted to make the Midwest an arts hub, and in 1932 he helped found an artists’ colony in his hometown of Cedar Rapids.
At the Iowa University Parks Library in Ames, Iowa, Wood produced a series of murals in his archetypal American Regionalist style (a first set for the Public Works of Art Project in 1934, a second in 1936 as part of the WPA). Wood was also involved in the production of another Iowan mural project at Callanan Middle School in Des Moines for the Federal Arts Project.
You may also like:
Artists at Work: The Impact of the WPA on American Art
Ansel Adams: Ten Things You Didn’t Know
The beautiful world of photographer Slim Aarons