Art and the Great Depression

The Great Depression left a huge ugly pit in the world that left thousands of people starving and homeless. The Great Depressions was the longest, most severe depression, and its impacts were felt in the entire industrialized world. When people can’t get jobs and are out on the streets starving they certainly aren’t going to be buying art; this left the majority of artists without jobs. The United States government realized that something had to be done to combat the effect the Great Depression had on the economy. The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented “The New Deal” which was a series of domestic programs (lasting roughly from 1933-1939), that focused on providing work relief to unemployed workers from all areas of U.S society. The projects in which these workers were employed ranged from public works to cultural documentation projects. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was the coordinating agency for many of these programs created by “The New Deal”. Many people from the Great Depression were left helpless and hopeless; the art that was created from “The New Deal” was to show how the Great Depression was affecting America and her people. This exhibit describes and presents the broad range of art that was created during the Great Depression.



History of Southern Illinois by Paul Kelpe

Under the WPA was the Federal Art Project (FAP), which Roosevelt created with the idea to combine the arts and patriotism to lift the fallen spirits of the many suffering Americans. From the FAP was born the Mural Division, which strived not only to employ artists, but to bring art to the public. The Mural Division during this era was very significant for its grand legacy and lasting impression it had on the arts because it displayed the many artistic styles, messages, and ideas of artists during this hard time. One popular art movement during this era was the “American Regionalism”, which depicts normal, everyday life with a special interest in community and hard work. One famous mural artist, Paul Kelpe (1902-1985), painted History of Southern Illinois, circa 1935-1939 in the state of Illinois. The painting was to depict an American scene and was painted for a Southern Illinois University library as part of the FAP. Within this piece Kelpe was striving to portray the history of industry, agriculture, and commerce in southern Illinois. The mural shows hard work and a thriving community, which was to help influence Americans that one day they will overcome these terrible times.


Farming and Politics Wall of a Social History of Missouri by Thomas Hart Benton


Law Wall of a Social History of Missouri by Thomas Hart Benton


A Social History of Missouri mural by Thomas Hart Benton

Another American Regionalist named Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) painted A Social History of the State of Missouri at the Missouri State Capitol building in 1936. This mural is a site to see, for it surrounds the entire room it is located in. At first Benton’s mural received harsh criticism, but he believed that showing the lower and middle classes in their everyday lives captured the spirit of Missouri.  Benton focused on the people of Missouri by including 235 individual portraits into the mural. Benton believed that Missouri’s uniqueness came from its people and he set out to travel all over Missouri in order to grasp the fullness of what Missourians are. Benton went on fishing and hunting trips, political barbeques, and spoke with the wide range of people that lived throughout Missouri. The mural displays a visual narrative of Missouri’s history. The narrative starts by showing pioneers arriving in Missouri and then on to men working the fields with their oxen and building a log cabin. There is a turkey shoot which is a popular Missouri tradition and a trade is shown of French frontiersmen trading whiskey and beads for furs with the Osage Indians. The Missouri River is shown winding through the murals in the background. This mural reflects the nationality and patriotism that so many Americans longed to feel through artwork of this time; life was hard and it was good to remember where they had come from and that there was a better future on the horizon.


Farm Hand by Clyfford Still

Abstract Expressionism was a huge art movement that happened after WW2. One well-known artist of Expressionism was Clyfford Still (1904-1980) who created Farm Hands, oil on canvas in 1936 in Washington State. Farm Hands was created before WW2 and even before Expressionism was developed into a new style that many artists were using; that is why Clyfford Still is one of the early pioneers of this style. It is an awkward looking painting that shows farmers toiling away during the Great Depression. The rugged hands show how hard these men have worked and the burden the Great Depression has had on their lives. It is a great painting that brings the viewer into the moment by feeling the, almost, despair within their lives as they work.




Gottesman, Laura. New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources. Library of Congress, 2010. Web. 4 April 2014.

The National Archives and Records Association. A New Deal for the Arts. N.p, 1998. Web. 4 April 2014.

Thomas Hart Benton: Murals in the Missouri State Capitol. Subject Matter and Iconography of Thomas Hart Benton Murals. N.P, 1983. Web.4 April 2014.

Wikipaintings. PH 77. N.p. Web. 4 April 2014.

Wikipedia. Clyfford Still. N.p, 2013. Web. 4 April 2014.

Wikipedia. Paul Kelpe History of Southern Illinois. N.p, 2012. Web. 4 April 2014.


4 thoughts on “Art and the Great Depression

  1. I enjoyed your blog a great deal, although I chose to do my project on World War 2, the Great Depression is also a very interesting subject. The additional information on some of the new deal projects was also fascinating. I find the murals captivating; showing some of the culture and history of the regions. My only gripe is that while I enjoyed your blog I missed the ending, I was waiting for you to wrap up your blog into a succinct closing paragraph but instead you ended rather abruptly. I also have a question; where is Benton from, where was he born? Regardless, I enjoyed your blog, the information you provided about the Federal Art Project and the art you chose to present.

  2. Great post. The connection of your chosen works to the Great Depression is very strong. Your introduction paragraph really set the pace for reading this post and provided critical information for understanding the true influences that existed during this time period. Looking at all of these pieces and understanding the process that led to them being created under government direction is well received as a reader of this post. I like that each piece’s paragraph details how the government played a role in making these works possible and I also like that at the end you provide your own opinion of the works. Your view of these paintings is understandable as a reader of your post. I like all of the works that you presented; I especially enjoy how vibrant the colors are. I also like that each painting shows people working hard. Your blog is very well put together and easy to follow. You detailed each painting and related it to the influence you chose, quite wonderfully in fact. It is interesting to look at these pictures and compare them to some photographs that were taken during the Great Depression. Here is a link to some Great Depression photography to compare with.

  3. I always thought the Great Depression was an interesting subject. It’s wonderful that The New Deal was able to help artists as well as other workers from the time; it shows how important Roosevelt felt that art was. I loved Benton’s A Social History of the State of Missouri. His passion for “home” and hard work really shine through the mural. The Great Depression was a point in time where people needed inspiration that their hard work would eventually pay off; I think this mural could have been the source of that inspiration for many.

  4. I very much enjoyed reading this post. It was well written and very informative. the art choices were fun and I thought it was cool how they showed the history of these states. the tie between these pieces and the depression was very clear. All together a well done aesthetically pleasing blog post.

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