Mural Projects of the New Deal

In times of economic hardship, the United States government has stepped in to create jobs for the unemployed through federal programs. In such cases focusing on our country’s infrastructure is money well spent. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs put people to work building bridges, tunnels, dams, public schools, libraries, municipal buildings, and hospitals. If not for the influence of Roosevelt’s friend, George Biddle, artists would not have been included in the decoration of many of these structures. George Biddle, an artist himself, set in motion a series of programs that created treasures of which many survive to this day.

Amongst the many employment opportunities created for artists, there are three distinct programs that funded mural projects during the New Deal. The first, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), was created in 1933 and ended in 1934. Second, the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) functioned from 1935 through 1938. Third, and by far the most successful of the programs, was the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (FAP)(WPA). This program funded murals and other art programs from 1933 through 1943, with artists’ participation in all forty-eight states.

James Daugherty, Study for The Life and Times of General Israel Putnam of Connecticut, pencil, ink and watercolor on paper, 1935. Sold for $6,750.

The prevailing conception of the purpose for mural projects, held by The WPA director Holger Cahill and the public at large, was to offer representational imagery with themes that relate to a common experience. Of the roughly three thousand artists employed to create an estimated four thousand projects, the majority fit this description.

Kindred McLeary, Scenes of New York, Harlem (Mural Study), Tempera on fiberboard, circa 1937. Sold for $5,000.

In New York City, abstract painter Burgoyne Diller was selected as supervisor of the New York mural division of the FAP WPA. Diller oversaw approximately two hundred projects and was successful in pushing through a handful of abstract submissions to realization. Amongst these were the murals created for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York. One artist selected for this site was Ilya Bolotowsky. The murals were lost and believed destroyed for decades until they were rediscovered behind walls during renovations. The works of Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden are on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Ilya Bolotowsky, Study for Williamsburg Housing Project Mural, pencil, ink and gouache, circa 1936. Sold for $2,500.

On December Seventh, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor set in motion the American war effort, joining with the Allies in World War II. Attention shifted away from art programs at home. A handful of artists were employed as part of the war effort but funding for murals dried up. Documentation of projects also suffered from this shift, leaving many projects forgotten. Organizations like have made great strides in documenting projects forgotten to time. Still, there are many works lost, with many believed destroyed.

Stay in Touch