About the Exhibit
Rediscovering America
Celebrating The People
Work Pays America
Activist Arts
Useful Arts

Rediscovering America
Part 1

I am a photographer hired by a democratic government to take pictures of its land and its people. The idea is to show New York to Texans and Texas to New York.
--Russell Lee, Farm Security Administration photographer, U.S. Camera One, 1941.

Artistic nationalism was a prominent aspect of much New Deal art. MORE...

American Scenes

In the visual arts, the creation of the federal arts projects coincided with the popularity of the movement known as the "American Scene." MORE...

Fishermen's Village by Edmund Lewandowski

Fishermen's Village
By Edmund Lewandowski, Wisconsin Federal Art Project, WPA, 1937 Watercolor and gouache over pencil

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration (MO 56-332)

History of Southern Illinois by Paul Kelpe

History of Southern Illinois
By Paul Kelpe, Illinois Federal Art Project, WPA, ca. 1935-39

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration (MO 56-331)
(Select image to see full size panoramic--94kb JPEG)

Though much of Paul Kelpe's art tended toward the abstract, his mural for the Southern Illinois University Library followed the prevailing American Scene style. This work describing the history of industry, agriculture, and commerce in southern Illinois is typical of many New Deal murals. The mural looks back to a supposedly simpler time when pioneers triumphed over adversity and built the nation through hard work, community, and strength of character. The results of all this industry--the growing fields, the commerce on the river, the school, even the children--are offered as proof that progress and community were achieved despite frontier conditions.
Untitled Winter Scene by Ceil Rosenberg

Untitled Winter Scene
By Ceil Rosenberg, Public Works of Art Project, 1934
Oil on canvas

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration
(MO 69-62)

Most American Scene paintings were idealized portrayals of small-town life, but some depicted urban scenes. Ceil Rosenberg's untitled Chicago street scene was typical of American Scene artists who worked in an urban environment. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), for which Rosenberg worked, discouraged art that was abstract, controversial, or swayed by foreign influences. Edward Rowan, who was an Assistant Director of the project, argued that while government artists should be given "the utmost freedom of expression," the PWAP should "check up very carefully on the subject matter of each project. . . . Any artist who paints a nude for the Public Works of Art Project should have his head examined."
Indian Village by Julius Twohy

Indian Village
By Julius Twohy, Washington Federal Art Project, WPA, ca. 1935-39

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration
(MO 56-327)

Native American artists, such as Julius Twohy, were employed by the WPA Arts Project in large numbers, and several post office murals were done by Indian artists or used Native American themes. In 1935 the Interior Department created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which promoted the development of markets for Native American arts and crafts through craft cooperatives and set standards for the art that would be sold in them.
Church in Shacktown Community by Dorothea Lange

"Church in shacktown community. It is used by different sects, including Pentecostal. The curtains are made of flour sacks. . . . Near Modesto, Stanislaus County, California, May 10, 1940"
By Dorothea Lange, Bureau of Agricultural Economics

National Archives, Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics

New Deal photographers skillfully recorded the American scene in great detail. Some caught the hard times and poverty of the Depression, but many others captured more benign and commonplace aspects of American life, including views of newsstands and streets, bus stations and roadside rests, churches and movie houses. The best New Deal photographers moved beyond simply recording, celebrating, or criticizing contemporary life and created visual documents that subtly explored the complex changes in 20th-century America.
Food For New York  series photograph by Sol Libsohn

Photograph from the "Food for New York City" series
By Sol Libsohn, New York City Federal Art Project, WPA, 1939

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

National Archives and Records Administration