Artistic Relief: Understanding the Federal Art Project and its Painters

How can a nation recover from complete economic collapse? Such was the challenge presented in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in a devastating period known as the Great Depression. As workers lost jobs and families struggled to make ends meet, the American government stepped into action to renew national optimism that economic recovery could be possible. A part of that plan was the Federal Art Project, which is recognized today not only for its incredible support for artists during a period of financial hardship but also for its collection of works, many of which are still celebrated today as masterpieces of their age. 

Let’s travel back in time and explore the artists and works associated with the Federal Art Project. In addition to a brief history, we’ll take a look at some of the most notable figures who helped to encourage a devastated nation to return from the brink of economic catastrophe. 

A New Deal for Recovery

In the wake of one of the greatest economic downturns in history, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt devised a recovery plan that would potentially put the nation back to work. His vision, known as the New Deal, launched in 1933 and attended to all sectors of the American economy to kickstart the engines of commerce and industry. As a result, the Works Progress Administration was launched in 1935 as a means to create jobs across sectors and across the country. 

One of these sectors was the realm of art. That same year the Federal Art Project launched under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Designed to support artists, the Federal Art Project financed commissions from more than 5,000 artists in its first year and continued to support projects until 1943. Commissions covered various artistic practices, including mural painting, canvas painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and craft and decorative arts.

In this article, we’re going to focus on the painters and muralists of the Federal Art Project.  From small-scale paintings and posters to giant murals that adorned a wide variety of spaces, from libraries to airports, and from schools to federal buildings everywhere from towns and metropolises all the way from San Francisco to New York, these commissions were designed to reinvigorate hope for possible recovery from financial ruin. As a result, many of the works channeled themes of American industry and resilience.

Federal Art Project Artists 

It has been estimated that, during the eight years of operation, the Federal Art Project funded work from more than 10,000 artists. Among these artists, some of the most important names in American art went to work. From this perspective, it could be said that the Federal Art Project not only boosted national morale but also became a springboard for rising talents to express their creativity on a regional or national stage. Let’s take a closer look at some of these key figures. 

Stuart Davis (1892-1964)

Men without women by Stuart Davis, Radio City Music Hall, New York.

Stuart Davis – Men Without Women, Radio City Music Hall, New York. Image courtesy of enric archivell via Flickr.

One of the earliest artists to be hired by the Federal Art Project, Stuart Davis excelled at bringing the language of modern painterly abstraction to his funded projects. This can be seen in his murals for the radio studios of WNYC, where Davis channeled the ideas of jazz into a cacophony of shapes and colors that also reference the elements of a musical score. From such early projects, Davis enjoyed a successful painting career punctuated with additional monumental mural commissions. One such work, Swing Landscape, painted in 1938 for the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, has been recognized as one of the most influential of the era. 

Arshile Gorky (c. 1904-1948)

Arshile Gorky - Composition.

Arshile Gorky – Composition. Est: $4,500,000 USD – $5,500,000 USD via Christie’s (Nov 2021).

A pioneering artist of the early 20th century who borrowed visual elements from across the Modernist movements, Arshile Gorky was commissioned in 1936 by the Federal Art Project to create a series of murals for the Newark Airport’s Administration Building. Originally a series of ten mural panels, including Activities on the Field and Aerial Map, Gorky’s mural relied upon a streamlined palette and simplified forms akin to his fellow abstract artists like Pablo Picasso. They played on the visual forms one might associate with the airport, including contours that resemble continents on a map and dashed lines that might reflect a flight plan or itinerary. These elements, underscoring the energy of travel, were reinforced by bright shades of red, yellow, and blue as if to allude to the role of transportation as primary to the nation’s economy. 

James Brooks (1906-1992)

A sculpture of Fiorello La Guardia, former Mayor of New York City at La Guardia's Marine Terminal. Behind it is James Brooks's mural.

A sculpture of Fiorello La Guardia, former Mayor of New York City at La Guardia’s Marine Terminal. Behind it is James Brooks’s mural, Flight. Image courtesy of TheeErin via Flickr.

Before his successful tour in the United States Army between 1942 and 1945, American artist James Brooks made a name for himself with his contributions to Federal Art Project commissions.  Brooks is credited with one of the largest Federal Art Project murals, which he created for LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Terminal. Perhaps in complement to the Streamline Moderne architectural style of the terminal’s facade, Brooks conjured a mural entitled Flight (1940-1942) more than 200 feet in length that celebrated the fascinating history of flying. 

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Jackson Pollock - Cotton Pickers.

Jackson Pollock – Cotton Pickers. Sold for $144,000 USD via Christie’s (Sept 2005).

Universally associated with the midcentury movement of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock also worked for the Federal Art Project. Nott associated with grand murals, Pollock instead created paintings, like Cotton Pickers, that nevertheless reminded viewers of the power of the American worth ethic. A student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock’s earliest works tended toward these pastoral or agrarian subjects: views of the American landscape dotted with figures at work.  Cotton Pickers  – a subject that Pollock repeated  – reflects this spirit. Though working with a subdued palette, which may perhaps have alluded to the plight of the American farmer at the time, works like Cotton Pickers nevertheless provided a sense of security in the inevitable need to work the land, gather a harvest, and barter or sell that harvest to fuel a nation.

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)

Jacob Lawrence - The Migration Spread from the Migration Series.

Jacob Lawrence – The Migration Spread from the Migration Series. Image courtesy of Ron Cogswell via Flickr.

Jacob Lawrence, a prominent artist of African-American heritage, made significant contributions to the Federal Art Project (FAP) during the challenging era of the Great Depression. His notable FAP project was the creation of “The Migration Series,” a collection of 60 powerful paintings that depicted the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas in the North and West. Lawrence’s distinctive style, characterized by vibrant colors, geometric forms, and dynamic compositions, captured the struggles and resilience of African Americans during this pivotal moment in history. “The Migration Series” stands as a testament to Lawrence’s artistic talent and his ability to convey profound narratives through visual storytelling. Today, these works are celebrated for their historical significance and continue to inspire generations with their portrayal of the African-American experience. Lawrence’s contributions to the FAP and his subsequent career have left an indelible mark on American art, amplifying marginalized voices and shining a light on important stories of the past.

Feeling the Legacy of the Federal Art Project 

The art created by Federal Art Project funding assuredly gave a boost to American morale. By selecting subjects that recalled past triumphs over adversity or future innovations on the horizon, these commissioned works might have even fueled the economic turnaround by the end of the 1930s. At the same time, this pipeline of funding into the American art community proved crucial to the rise of major American art movements, like Abstract Expressionism, following World War II. This forward-thinking approach in funding American art perhaps epitomizes American ingenuity in the face of adversity while also reminding us of origins for some of the masters of 20th-century American art.