In the ocean of federal relief provided to America's unemployed during and after the Great Depression, paying visual artists to create art was perhaps the most innovative wave then and among the most remembered now. With salaries from the Works Progress Administration and related agencies, thousands of men and women made paintings, sculpture, posters, photographs and, most notably, murals that decorated post offices, schools, hospitals, courthouses and other public buildings across the country.
"Song of the Towers" by Aaron Douglas
By most counts, New Deal programs produced more than 2,500 murals, though records are incomplete. Worse, in the decades after the programs ended in 1943, many of these murals were moved, painted over, neglected or destroyed.
Yet the known survivors form an enchanting world to explore, even online. Some are deservedly famous. One such set resides at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. There, Aaron Douglas painted "Aspects of Negro Life" (1934), four murals tracking the trajectory of Black people from Africa through slavery and Reconstruction to the Great Migration, posted on the library's website. In the 1920s, Douglas had emerged as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a movement to create a capital for Black culture in uptown New York. His Schomburg murals, soft in color, are layered, loosely Cubist images. You can see them and learn more in a preview video of a 2015 film, "Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA." This medley, which includes bits on poet Langston Hughes and gospel music, devotes time to Douglas's background and his goal, which was partly to spread the word about the Black journey. It's available on Vimeo and the film can be purchased as a DVD.
"Meat Industry," in Coit Tower
The New Deal murals inside Coit Tower in San Francisco are also well-known. Painted by some two-dozen artists in 1934, they are social realist panels about life in California during the Depression, with titles like "Banking and Law" and "Meat Industry." Their story, with a detailed layout, is available in a San Francisco Recreation and Park Department brochure
. To see them, watch a segment from a "PBS NewsHour" broadcast from 2012
and a slideshow
made by KQED in San Francisco, both on YouTube. The murals' restoration was captured in a 2014 article and slideshow in the San Francisco Chronicle
"Banking and Law" in Coit Tower
Sadly, many New Deal murals continue to be threatened; that's one way they gain attention. Last year, Preservation New Jersey put the Fort Lee Post Office
, which is set to be demolished, on its most endangered list. It houses four murals, viewable on PNJ's website, made by Henry Schnakenberg in 1938 about Fort Lee, with scenes of local Native Americans, George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the city's early history as a hub for the movie industry, and the George Washington Bridge. A 2017 article and video on NorthJersey.com
relate more of their story, with pictures (the murals' fate remains undecided).
That sense of place was frequently evident in New Deal murals. You'll find "Chuck Wagon Serenade" (1940) by Manuel A. Bromberg at the post office in Greybull, Wyo.; "Gathering Wild Rice" (1939) by Lucia Wiley at the post office in Long Prairie, Minn.; and "Dredging for Oysters" (1937) by Alexander Rummler at the Norwalk City Hall in Connecticut.
"Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans" by Ethel Magafan
These and many, many others are viewable on two websites that have created inventories of New Deal Art. Both are collaborative efforts, still growing. The Living New Deal
devotes a section to murals
containing 1,653 mostly illustrated listings at the moment, which you can browse. To search for a specific artwork you must know where it is or who painted it. I experimented by searching for tiny Elgin, Texas, whose post office I had heard about. Sure enough, up it came with "Texas Farm" (1940) by Julian Woeltz, a rosy picture of laborers, chickens and blue sky.
"The Meaning of Social Security" by Ben Shahn
The other site, New Deal Art Registry
, lacks a separate murals section and a site search function, but you can browse by artist, subject or location. Most listings present a detail and a link to a larger image, and in random explorations it was not hard to light on excellent examples. A post office in Walsenburg, Colo., offers "The Spanish Peaks"
(1937), a spare landscape by E.L. Blumenschein, a member of the Taos, N.M., group of painters, a short-lived early 20th-century cooperative devoted to art of the area. A Wynne, Ariz., post office
gives viewers a more socially conscious, though too positive, view of Black workers in "Cotton Pickers"
(1940) by Ethel Magafan. The "Cotton Pickers" page links to four other murals by Magafan, including "Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans" (1943) at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington. That's where I discovered one caution about this site: I found several instances where the "larger image" was not the full artwork. To see Magafan's complete New Orleans mural
, go instead to the Library of Congress website.
Detail, "Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family" by Philip Guston
As Social Security was a signature program of the New Deal, it's fitting that the Washington building that was once its home, now the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, has several murals. There, Philip Guston, a first-generation Abstract Expressionist, painted "Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family" (1943) and Ben Shahn, a social realist painter, created "The Meaning of Social Security" (1942), for example. The General Services Administration offers an illustrated history on its website
, while other views are available at the Library of Congress.
And you may want to return to the Living New Deal and the New Deal Art Registry. Don't be surprised if you spend a few hours there, intrigued by these artworks.