Although the current economic crisis is not as severe as the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people are looking back to those days of unprecedented government intervention aimed at stabilizing the economy. President Franklin Roosevelt introduced programs to put people back to work, mostly in construction jobs, improving roads, bridges and schools. But artists were also part of the government work programs, and some of the works they created are now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in Washington.
In 1933, the year Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in for the first time as President, 25 percent of American heads of household, roughly 13 million people, were unemployed. Ten thousand of those unemployed were artists.
"There were relief programs that were being started for other people, and someone said, 'they've got to eat, too," notes George Gurney, Deputy Chief Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
More than 3,000 artists were enrolled in the Public Works of Art Program and were paid a weekly wage to make art. "The idea," says Gurney, "was to give back to the country while giving something to the artists."
The PWAP funded all kinds of visual art -- murals, sculpture, folk art, crafts, and painting. The exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists
focuses only on the paintings. Gurney and co-curator Ann Prentice Wagner selected 56 paintings for the show.
They show fields, factories, villages and large cities. Artists painted Americans young and old, at work in gold mines, shipyards, barbershops and rock quarries; and at leisure - skating in Central Park, playing baseball and sailing.
"There was an attempt to go out and paint what people saw around them," Gurney says. "In a sense this exhibition is to a large degree a snapshot of what America looked like in 1934."
But, while artists were encouraged to paint "the American scene," some interpreted that rather loosely. "Sometimes they are the escape from the American scene, which was also fairly typical," says Wagner. She notes a painting by Paul Mays called Jungle
looks like something out of the movie Tarzan
, which was made in 1932.
Another painting by Alice Dinneen of a black panther combines imagery from two of her favorite places in New York, the Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo.
Surprisingly, very few of the paintings show a nation in the grips of an economic depression.
"When you look around at these paintings, there is a positive spirit," Gurney says. "Probably a quarter of the artists on relief were immigrants, and immigrants by and large are people who want to represent things in a positive way."
While some questioned whether government money should be used to buy paintings, Wagner says the program was widely supported. "Because everyone had artists from their region and the art was going to depict their region, it was pretty clear that the whole country was going to benefit from this."
All 56 paintings in the exhibition murals by Ben Shahn
, adorns the walls at Voice of America headquarters here in Washington, D.C.