WPA artists changed the course of American art


The stock market crash of October 1929 set off a severe economic shock wave in the United States, which swept 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. FDR’s vision of a New Deal to usher in change was set in motion, with goals to strengthen our financial systems and programs designed to employ the masses and expand 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. . The dominant theme and main focus of the artists of those difficult years was social realism.

Russell Lee, Children at the Blackboard, Dick Lake Project, Arkansas, 1938, photograph.

On January 27, Swann Auction Galleries is offering WPA Artists, exploring the themes, motivations, and artists that defined the New Deal era as part of the many agencies that formed during this time. Capturing vernacular architecture to the rise of the modern city, the rise of the visual and performing arts, from interior scenes of domestic workers to billiard halls – enabled artists to paint, print and photographing during a time of great conflict as a way to move forward.

No fewer than 10,000 WPA artists have helped shape a modern American identity, capturing life in all its variety, rooted in pride and tenacity. These images provided an identity and a narrative for the victims of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, allowing a nation to better relate to fellow Americans stricken with significant forms of hardship.

The following is a selection of WPA art from the Swann event with input from Harold Porcher, Director of Modern and Post-War Art at Swann.

Maynardville, TN

Ben Shahn, Maynardville, Tennessee, photograph, 1935.

Ben Shahn, Maynardville, Tennessee, photograph, 1935.

Federal Arts Project artists documented a new way of life – a modern America that offered a representation of what the nation looked like and how your neighbors lived. Ennobling images were taken to document the courage and tenacity of the American spirit.

Prepare for the auction

Preparing for the Auction by Aaron Bohrod

Aaron Bohrod, Preparing for the Auction, oil on hardboard, 1942.

In 1941, the president of the American Tobacco Company approached Reeves Lewenthal, then director of the New York gallery Associated American Artists, to select leading American scene painters who would travel to the American Southeast to capture in paintings the planting, harvesting, curing and auctioning of tobacco crops. . 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 brand cigarettes from 1942 to 1947. By the 1940s, more than 1.5 million American farms were dedicated to supplying the tobacco industry.

Girl in Gee’s Bend, Alabama

Girl in Gee's Bend, Alabama

Artelia Bendolph, Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 1937.

“Girl in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a striking half-portrait of Artelia Bendolph gazing into an unknown distance. The window of the Kutcha house is lined with old newspaper clippings about domestic life. In February 1937, the Farm Security Administration commissioned Arthur Rothstein to photograph Gee’s Bend, a former plantation that had become an isolated community of African-American sharecroppers. Rothstein’s image emphasizes the harsh but sometimes picturesque living conditions rather than signs of progress. Gee’s Bend is now famous for the sophisticated craftsmanship of its quilting tradition.” corey serrant, Administrator, African American Art⁠, Swann Auction Galleries.

Pelham Bay

Daniel Celentano, Pelham Bay

Daniel Celentano, Pelham Bay, oil on canvas, 1935.

This painting, of a Pelham Line train (#6) full of passengers, illustrates the importance of strong infrastructure with affordable housing and transportation. It was made around 1935 in the midst of the American Depression.

Harlem street dance

Elizabeth Olds, Harlem Street Dancer

Elizabeth Olds, Harlem street dance, gouache, 1937.

Elizabeth Olds (1896–1991) was an American artist known for her work in developing screen printing as a fine art medium. She was a painter and illustrator, but is best known as an engraver, using screen printing, woodcut and lithography processes. In 1926, she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship. She studied under 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, Stacking Hay

Jackson Pollock, Stacking Hay, lithograph, circa 1935-36.

Jackson Pollock was an influential American painter and the main 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 alludes to the dynamism that Pollock himself would develop during his own time in the WPA, being exposed to the murals and to the styles that would become his 1940s drip and action painting.

Grant Wood approaches the storm

grant wood, approaching storm, 1940.

Wood was one of the WPA’s best-known muralists, achieving celebrity status after his painting. “American Gothic” won a bronze medal at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood always wanted to recreate the Midwest as an artistic center and helped found an artists’ colony in his hometown of Cedar Rapids in 1932.

In the Parks Library at the University of Iowa in Ames, Iowa, Wood made a series of murals in his archetypal American Regionalist style (a first series for the Public Works of Art Project in 1934, a second in 1936 under the WPA). Wood was also involved in the production of another Iowan Mural Project at Callanan Middle School in Des Moines for the Federal Art Project.

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