Hard Times, 1929-1939

June 1 to September 3, 2010
Exhibited in Archives’ New York City Research Center

A great economic depression was sweeping the United States and the American workers, and the artists too, had their own troubles to worry about. Wages were being slashed, strikes were taking place everywhere. Strong men were selling apples on street corners. The young artist who depended on his hands to eat was catapulted violently from the heights of his ivory tower into the whirlpool of suffering humanity. There was absolutely no private patronage.
—Philip Evergood, 1945

The crash of the stock market in 1929 initiated a chain of events that crippled the American art scene. As money from private patrons and museums evaporated, artists joined the nation’s staggering number of unemployed workers. Beginning in 1933, government–sponsored art programs provided work relief for artists, employing them as muralists, painters, sculptors, art educators, and researchers. It was a decade of social change that accelerated the rise of unions and spirited art organizations.

The toils and triumphs of a wide range of individual artists and art organizations—documented in letters, photographs, journals, business records, and oral history interviews at the Archives of American Art—reveal how American artists survived against the odds.

Hear the voices of HARD TIMES:

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Letterio Calapai

Letterio Calapai, ca. 1937

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

William E. L. Bunn sketchbook #4

William E. L. Bunn sketchbook #4, 1937

Creator: William E. L. (Edward Lewis) Bunn

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Leroy Dudensing letter to Herman Trunk

Leroy Dudensing letter to Herman Trunk, 1929 September

Creator: Leroy Dudensing

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Sketches for Santa Fe Public Library mural

Sketches for Santa Fe Public Library mural, 1934

Creator: Olive Rush

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Artists' Union Rally

Artists' Union Rally, ca. 1935

Creator: Irving Marantz

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Sketches from Karl Marx's Capital in Lithographs

Sketches from Karl Marx's Capital in Lithographs, ca. 1933

Creator: Hugo Gellert

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Olin Dows letter to William Gropper and draft response from Gropper

Olin Dows letter to William Gropper and draft response from Gropper, 1936 May 18

Creator: Olin Dows

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

George Biddle letter to Holger Cahill

George Biddle letter to Holger Cahill, ca. 1936

Creator: George Biddle

Artist and WPA advocate, Biddle declared in this letter, “Artists need the government as much as the government needs the artists.”

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Employment and Activities poster for the WPA's Federal Art Project

Employment and Activities poster for the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1936

Creator: Works Progress Administration

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Dismissal notice

Dismissal notice, 1937 Jun. 17

Creator: Works Progress Administration

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Harry Gottlieb's Artists' Union membership card

Harry Gottlieb's Artists' Union membership card, 1935

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Notes for a speech on the Constitution of the American Artists' Congress

Notes for a speech on the Constitution of the American Artists' Congress, 1937

Creator: Philip Howard Evergood

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Michael M. Engel Christmas card to Edward Bruce

Michael M. Engel Christmas card to Edward Bruce, 1941 Dec. 23

Creator: Michael M. Engel

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Adelaide Annette Parrott to Edward Bruce

Adelaide Annette Parrott to Edward Bruce, ca. 1936

Because Parrott made a meager income selling pigeons, she did not meet the WPA’s relief requirements.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Protest held by the John Reed Club and Artists' Union

Protest held by the John Reed Club and Artists' Union, 1934

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Frank and Ieda Hanley Christmas card to Louis Lozowick

Frank and Ieda Hanley Christmas card to Louis Lozowick, 1929

Creator: Francis Joseph Hanley

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

New Masses memorandum to unidentified recipients

New Masses memorandum to unidentified recipients, 1929 Oct. 21

Creator: New Masses

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Edward Bruce, Washington, D.C. letter to Olive Rush, Santa Fe, N.M.

Edward Bruce, Washington, D.C. letter to Olive Rush, Santa Fe, N.M., 1934 Jan. 11

Creator: Edward Bruce

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Phyllis Crawford letter to Audrey McMahon

Phyllis Crawford letter to Audrey McMahon, 1937 November 8

Creator: Phyllis Crawford

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Edward Bruce, Washington, D.C. letter to Leon Kroll

Edward Bruce, Washington, D.C. letter to Leon Kroll, 1937 October 4

Creator: Edward Bruce

In Bruce’s letter to his friend Leon Kroll, he expressed his frustration with Rockwell Kent, “That dirty little Kent is just one of our accumulation of kicks that come along which makes a lot of annoyance and that much more difficult to keep the project running smoothly.”

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Lewis Rubenstein's sketchbook documenting a hunger march to Washington, D.C.

Lewis Rubenstein's sketchbook documenting a hunger march to Washington, D.C., 1932

Creator: Lewis W. (Lewis William) Rubenstein

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

James Penney's New York Sketchbook

James Penney's New York Sketchbook, 1932

Creator: James Penney

Penney sketched a big spender willing to pay the highest price—5 cents—for an ice cream pop because “the stock market rose today!”

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

List of business depressions

List of business depressions, 1932

Creator: Grant Wood

Born on a farm in Iowa, painter Grant Wood experienced the economic instability of farming firsthand. In 1931, he made a chronological list of thirteen prior depressions, beginning in 1819. With this list he attempts to put the current depression in context as just another short-lived downturn to endure.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Regional Directors and Washington Administrative Staff . Public Works Art Project

Regional Directors and Washington Administrative Staff . Public Works Art Project, 1934

Creator: Lewis P. Woltz

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

William E.L. Bunn painting a mural for a post office in Minden, Neb.

William E.L. Bunn painting a mural for a post office in Minden, Neb., not after 1939

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

George Biddle

George Biddle, 1936

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Augusta Savage with her sculpture Realization

Augusta Savage with her sculpture Realization, circa 1938

Creator: Andrew Herman

Savage was the first director of the WPA-funded Harlem Community Arts Center. Artists associated with the Center included Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

City Arabesque

City Arabesque, 1938 June 9

Creator: Berenice Abbott

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Art front

Art front, 1934 Nov.

Creator: Artists' Union (New York, N.Y.)

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Marion Greenwood

Marion Greenwood, 1940 June 4

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Eugenie Gershoy

Eugenie Gershoy, 1940 Oct. 29

Creator: Max Yavno

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

William Zorach with sculpture

William Zorach with sculpture, ca. 1940

Creator: John D. Schiff

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, ca. 1938

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Lucienne Bloch painting The cycle of a woman's life

Lucienne Bloch painting The cycle of a woman's life, ca. 1938

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

James Penney draft letter to

James Penney draft letter to "Johnson", 25 October 1931

Creator: James Penney

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Bernard Zakheim and Julia Rogers work on Coit Tower mural

Bernard Zakheim and Julia Rogers work on Coit Tower mural, 1934

Creator: Peter Stackpole

In 1934, the PWAP commissioned twenty-six artists to paint murals, titled City Life, for the Coit Tower in San Francisco. While intended to celebrate the city and its citizens, the murals included a political subtext. For example, Bernard Zakheim snuck in images of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and the Marxist magazine, The New Masses into his mural. Photographs by Peter Stackpole.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

George Harris and Fred Olmstead working on Coit Tower mural

George Harris and Fred Olmstead working on Coit Tower mural, 1934

Creator: Peter Stackpole

In 1934, the PWAP commissioned twenty-six artists to paint murals, titled City Life, for the Coit Tower in San Francisco. While intended to celebrate the city and its citizens, the murals included a political subtext. For example, Bernard Zakheim snuck in images of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and the Marxist magazine, The New Masses into his mural. Photographs by Peter Stackpole.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Edward Beatty Rowan, Washington, D.C. letter to Chaim Gross, New York, N.Y.

Edward Beatty Rowan, Washington, D.C. letter to Chaim Gross, New York, N.Y., 1935 May 31

Creator: Edward Beatty Rowan

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Chaim Gross working on his sculpture Alaska snow-shoe mail carrier

Chaim Gross working on his sculpture Alaska snow-shoe mail carrier, 1937

Creator: Lewis Jacobs

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

A life class for adults at the Brooklyn Museum, under the auspice of the New York City WPA Art Project

A life class for adults at the Brooklyn Museum, under the auspice of the New York City WPA Art Project, ca. 1935

Holger Cahill established the WPA art education program in 1935. Adults could take classes in painting, design, photography, and craftwork—skills that made them more competitive in the job market. Other successful educational programs paired children with mentors and brought therapeutic art programs to patients in hospitals.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Edward Chavez with Bronze Cross for Episcapal Chape, in Woodstock, New York, 1950. Photograph by Robert Sewall.

Edward Chavez with Bronze Cross for Episcapal Chape, in Woodstock, New York, 1950. Photograph by Robert Sewall., 1950

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Index of American Design at Macy's Department Store, NYC

Index of American Design at Macy's Department Store, NYC, 1938 July 30

Creator: Federal Art Project (N.Y.)

The Index of American Design employed several hundred artists and researchers to discover and document American crafts and decorative arts. Artists painted approximately 22,000 watercolors of handmade objects. The watercolors were exhibited nationwide.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Holger Cahill with Ed Rowan

Holger Cahill with Ed Rowan, 1936

Cahill and Rowan led significant New Deal art projects: Cahill was the National Director of the Federal Art Project and Rowan was Assistant Director of the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Rocking chair

Rocking chair, 193-

Creator: Dorothy Hay Jensen

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Max Weber, Long Island, N.Y. letter to Rockwell Kent, Ausable Forks, N.Y.

Max Weber, Long Island, N.Y. letter to Rockwell Kent, Ausable Forks, N.Y., 1937 May 20

Creator: Max Weber

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Stuart Davis, New York, N.Y. letter to Rockwell Kent

Stuart Davis, New York, N.Y. letter to Rockwell Kent, 1938 May 5

Creator: Stuart Davis

Stuart Davis, National Chairman of the American Artists’ Congress, wrote to painter Rockwell Kent asking him to join a committee to support the continuation of federal funding for the arts.

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Yasuo Kuniyoshi in his studio

Yasuo Kuniyoshi in his studio, 1940 Oct. 31

Creator: Max Yavno

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Edward Weston letter to Holger Cahill

Edward Weston letter to Holger Cahill, 1936 Mar. 5

Creator: Edward Weston

Photographer Edward Weston praised the WPA’s efforts to nurture young artists. He wrote, “if a handful of important artists developed or given a chance to work…then the effort will not have been in vain.”

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Stuart Davis

Stuart Davis, 1939 Jan. 25

Creator: Sol Horn

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Hard Times, 1929-1939

Herbert Haseltine letter to Martin Birnbaum

Herbert Haseltine letter to Martin Birnbaum, between 1930 and 1962

Creator: Herbert Haseltine

American expatriate sculptor, in France, Herbert Haseltine, wrote to his friend and dealer, Martin Birnbaum, lamenting, “the financial depression, I suppose has got me at last. People come to my studio, admire and admire, but don’t buy.”

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