The New Deal was one of President Roosevelt’s efforts to end the Great Depression. Art projects were a major part of this series of federal relief programs, like the Public Works of Art Project, the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and the Treasury Relief Art Project. The Federal Art Project (FAP), created in 1935 as part of the Work Progress Administration (WPA), directly funded visual artists and provided posters for other agencies like the Social Security Administration and the National Park Service. The FAP also organized traveling art shows before it ceased operations in 1943.
New Deal Photographers
The field of photography benefitted hugely from the New Deal. In the mid-1930s, the Farm Security Administration’s Resettlement Administration hired photographers to document the work done by the agency, which launched the careers of many major photojournalists.
From 1937 to 1942 this army of photographers created iconic images defining the New Deal era. From 1942 to 1944 the Office of War Information directed photographers’ work, which now focused on patriotic images and propaganda.
The images were typically black and white, but participating photographers could take advantage of Kodak’s new color film. Each photographer was assigned a region to cover. Their general mission was to capture the life of the common person in the United States, with a particular focus on people meeting the challenges of the Great Depression.
While Arthur Rothstein covered the Great Plains and documented the horror of Dust Bowl storms, Walker Evans photographed small towns and tenant farmers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and followed the lives of three families in Hale County, Alabama.
Evans’ work for the FSA made him one of the most celebrated American photographers, and his work in Alabama was published in the seminal book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with text by writer James Agee.
John Collier Jr. promoted photography as a tool in anthropology. His FSA work centered on Amish and Latino populations. Russell Lee also focused on the Latino population specifically in New Mexico. Jack Delano traveled to Puerto Rico and then along the American rail system.
Under the financing of the FAP, photographer Berenice Abbott documented how New York City was changing, particularly with an eye on how infrastructure affected human life.
Dorothea Lange is one of the most influential photographers of the FSA, and one of the best-known women photographers ever.
Among Lange’s most compelling photographs are images she took of the Dust Bowl. She also followed migrant workers to California, where Lange captured images of struggling farm families, including the iconic Migrant Mother.
Gordon Parks’ work focused on inner-city neighborhoods, and lead to his long stint as a photo essayist for Life Magazine and as a film director. Trail-blazing newspaper photographer Marion Post Wolcott was the first woman to be offered a full-time position with the FSA. From 1938 to 1942 Wolcott traveled the entire country documenting poverty.
Married photographers Edward and Louise Rosskam captured scenes in Washington, D.C., and Vermont, with a focus on racial justice. Marjory Collins photographed the lives of African Americans, Jews, and immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Italy.
Many American painters who would later find success as Abstract Expressionists got their first commissions through the FAP. These artists were required to submit a new painting every four to six weeks, to be allocated for display in a public building.
Jackson Pollack spent eight years working for the WPA, along with his wife and fellow Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner; both remained with the WPA until 1943. Pollack said he used the time and regular income to develop the ideas that would bring him later acclaim. Their friends and fellow abstract painters Ad Reinhardt and James Brooks were also part of the WPA.
Mark Rothko was one of 500 artists invited to be part of the Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP). Rothko worked for the WPA from 1936 to 1937. Among his contributions were Untitled (Two Women at the Window) (1937) and Untitled (Subway) (1937).
Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, a leading influence on Jackson Pollack and crucial to the development of Abstract Expressionism, was one of the first hires of the WPA. Dutch Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning credited his time with the WPA, from 1935 to 1937, for teaching him to think of himself as an artist first.
But Gorky, de Kooning and Rothko were not American citizens, which caused their dismissal from the WPA in 1937.
Louise Nevelson attended the Art School League along with Pollack and others and is best known for her avant-garde, feminist sculpture. For the WPA, she was a teacher and mural assistant to Diego Rivera. Rivera was a Mexican muralist credited for inspiring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the WPA art program.
Other artists outside the New York experimental school benefited from WPA support. Cartoonist Mac Raboy found success working on Captain Marvel, Jr. and Flash Gordon. For the WPA, he specialized in woodcut illustrations.
Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vera Bock is best known for her edition of The Arabian Nights. She worked for the New York poster division from 1936 to 1939 and is notable for her History of Civic Services series.
African American Artists
By the middle of the 1930s, WPA projects featured 250,000 African American workers, including those in the Federal Art Project, including many artists crucial to the Harlem Renaissance, like Aaron Douglas. His four-panel mural Aspects of Negro Life was featured at the New York Public Library in Harlem.
Sculptor Augusta Savage worked to enroll black artists in the WPA, eventually directing the program at Harlem’s Community Arts Center. Among Savage’s students there were Barbados-born painter Gwendolyn Knight; modernist painter Jacob Lawrence, best known for his 1941 Migration series; Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis; sculptor William Artis; painter and children’s book illustrator Ernest Crichlow; cartoonist and illustrator Elton C. Fax; and photographer Marvin Smith.
Harlem Renaissance artists Charles “Spinky” Alston and James Lesesne Wells also taught at the center. Artist and poet Gwendolyn Bennett took over from Savage in 1938.
Other notable black WPA artists were Dox Thrash, who invented the printmaking method carborundum mezzotint; painters Georgette Seabrooke and Elba Lightfoot, best known for their Harlem Hospital murals; Chicago printmaker Eldzier Cortor; and renowned Illinois-based artist Adrian Troy, who illustrated WPA books like Cavalcade of the American Negro.
Native American Artists
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board was created in 1935 as part of the Commission on Indian Affairs. Initially, an effort to catalog and promote traditional Native American crafts, it soon advocated for Native American artists to be hired on mural projects for the Department of the Interior.
Well-known Navajo painter Gerald Nailor was part of this effort—he created murals at the Navajo Nation Council House in Arizona with assistance from Hoke Denetsosie, Navajo cartoonist and children’s book illustrator. Other muralists were Apache painter and Modernist sculptor Allan House, Pueblo Indian painter and illustrator Velino Shije Herrera and Potawatomi painter Woodrow Crumbo.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board oversaw two of the largest exhibitions of Native American arts at the time. The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco featured new murals by Sioux artist Calvin Larvie.
The Museum of Modern Art show in 1941 featured works by Hopi painter Fred Kabotie, Yanktonai Dakota painter Oscar Howe, Haida carver Chief John Wallace and Navajo painter Harrison Begay
The New Deal. Kathryn A. Flynn.
A New Deal for Native Art: Indian Arts and Federal Policy, 1933-1943. Jennifer McLerran.
The WPA: Creating Jobs and Hope in the Great Depression. Sandra Opdycke.
The Living New Deal. Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley.
A New Deal For The Arts. The National Archives.