1934: A New Deal for Artists

1934: A New Deal for Artists

By Meghan Evans

“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.” [1] – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

During his nomination address on July 2, 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the American people to aid in the restoration of the American economy. The New Deal created jobs through various programs, but it would take World War II to help the United States fight its way out of depression entering a prosperous age of growth and development.

The exhibition entitled 1934: A New Deal for Artists commemorates the 75th anniversary of the first New Deal arts program, The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). The program funded the work of 3,750 artists tasked to represent the United States. Approximately 15,600 pieces were produced during the 7-month course of the program (December 1933 to June 1934). These pieces were displayed in public places including the House of Representatives Office Building, the Department of Labor Building, and the White House.

The success of this program inspired the creation other government administrations stimulating economic development, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA employed 9 million people between 1935 and 1943. While most WPA jobs were in construction, the agency also included programs for artists and launched the careers of many young artists. Several WPA murals survive today by artists such as David Park, Jackson Pollock, and Will Barnet.

1934 features 54 paintings from the PWAP collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and provides an opportunity for museums displaying this exhibition to show their own collection of PWAP and WPA art. These paintings are organized by popular theme, including: American People, Labor, Industry, Leisure, The City, The Country, and Nature.

Representing the country is Leo Breslau’s Plowing. This iconic portrait shows a prosperous farmer tilling his field amongst green pastures, purple mountains, and blue skies. It portrays the American dream: a man, his home, and his work. While this portrait represents the ideal American scene, it is unlikely that Breslau witnessed such a scene during the 1930s as Breslau spent his life in Brooklyn, New York.


Literary representations of the Depression age describe scenes of famine and starvation, much like the struggle in Richard Wright’s Fire and Cloud. Wright’s primary character, Reverend Dan Taylor struggles to feed his flock while keeping peace between black, white, and Red communities. Wright’s uncanny ability to describe the scene in detail is worth mentioning, especially in terms of artistic color. His detailed descriptions of Taylor’s struggle are limited in terms of color to black and white when he is representing despair and hopelessness. However, other colors appear in scenes of emotional stress.

Like Breslau, Wright paints an image of hope through his descriptions despite the crisis at hand. In reminiscing about better days, Wright narrates with vibrant colors as opposed to the black and white existence of Taylor’s present day.

“Yes, there had been something in those good old days when he had walked behind his plow, between the broad green earth and a blue sweep of sunlit sky; there had been in it all a surge of will, clean, full, joyful; the earth was his and he was the earth’s; they were one; and it was that joy and will and oneness in him that God had spoken to when He had called him to preach His Word, to save His black people, to lead them, to guide them, to be a shepherd to His flock.” [2]

These images of hope are often painted with bright and vibrant colors, just as those of hopelessness are portrayed in black and white. Other PWAP paintings, such as Ivan Albright’s The Farmer’s Kitchen, are not so idealistic and show America as weary and hopeless. Clearly, many artists found the need to inspire hope in American audiences and remind them of better days.  Other artists chose to portray the American scene as they saw it – boils and all – thus making a connection among the people through shared experience.


1934: A New Deal for Artists is currently on exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information about this extraordinary exhibition, please visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


[1] Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanore Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1933 (Viking: New York, NY, 1992), 456.

[2] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (Perennial: New York, NY, 2004), 160.


Wagner, Ann Prentice, 1934: A New Deal for Artists. D Giles Limited: London, 2009.

Wright, Richard, Uncle Tom’s Children. Perennial: New York, NY, 2004.

Images courtesy of the exhibition catalog 1934: A New Deal for Artists by Ann Prentice Wagner.

4 thoughts on “1934: A New Deal for Artists

  1. It’s interesting to think about how creating public artwork empowered many of these artists. They had a chance not only to make money, but were also given a voice in public life.

  2. I’ve always wondered why visual art was specifically chosen to receive federal support during the depression. Not that I’m opposed to supporting the arts, but why and how did it win out over music, theatre, literarture, etc? It has left us with a stunning visual and material culture record of arts during the time, but if a similar program occurred today, I think we’d end up with very different pieces than posters and paintings.

    1. Theater people in New York got a lot of funding from the WPA as well, actually, including a lot of playwrights. But it is interesting that that is not as well known as the iconic posters, and the work they did is not specifically associated with the New Deal in the same way. Now I’m wondering if anyone has ever studied the theater of the era as a product of the New Deal, in the same way that this art gets studied – someone must have, but I can’t think of anything detailed about it that I’ve ever come across.

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