WPA Posters: Favorites from a Vintage Posters Specialist

In addition to the many murals, sculptures, paintings and photos commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s and forties, graphic artists designed hundreds upon hundreds of posters for the agency, of which about two million copies were printed and only a fraction survived. Promoting the arts, books, public health, social programs, civic responsibility, travel and more, the posters that resulted from FDR’s New Deal represent a unique period in American history and continue to be collected for their cultural significance and aesthetic appeal.

Our vintage posters specialist, Lauren Goldberg, takes us through some of the most memorable WPA posters that Swann has offered.

 

Boris Artzybasheff: Buy American Art

 
Boris Artzybasheff, Art Week / Buy American Art, circa 1939. WPA Poster
Boris Artzybasheff, Art Week / Buy American Art, circa 1939. Sold May 23, 2019, in Graphic Design for $875.
 

Not all WPA posters were signed by their artists, and while some went on to greater renown in the art world at large, most of the designers remain known for their graphic work of this period. One of the artists who went on to greater acclaim was Boris Artzybasheff, a prominent Russian-American illustrator. The accomplished design pictured above bears all the trademarks of a desirable WPA image: both elegant flourishes and geometric framing, a patriotic palette and a positive message.

 

Katherine Milhous & Library Posters

 
Katherine Milhous, Rural Pennsylvania, circa 1939. WPA Poster
Katherine Milhous, Rural Pennsylvania, circa 1939. Sold November 13, 2006, in Rare & Important Travel Posters for $1,560.
 

Katherine Milhous, who became an award-winning book illustrator, was also known for her WPA posters related to rural Pennsylvania Dutch culture as part of the Pennsylvania Art Project. Philadelphia-born, she created affectionate images of the local Amish and Mennonite communities. 

 
Katherine Milhous, Books / Great-Grandmother's Day. WPA Poster
Katherine Milhous, Books / Great-Grandmother’s Day. Sold May 21, 2009, in Modernist Posters for $600.
 
Designer unknown, group of four books and reading WPA posters, circa 1940.
Designer unknown, group of four books and reading WPA posters, circa 1940. Sold May 3, 2010, in Modernist Posters for $3,360.
 

It’s no mystery why WPA book and library posters hold special interest for us at Swann. Artists devised designs advertising Book Week, advocating public libraries, promoting literacy and the joys of reading, in addition to instructional guides for how to take care of books. Our bibliophile clients must agree with our taste, as these tend to bring among the highest prices for WPA posters.

 

Posters for the War Effort

 
Designer unknown, Women Work for Victory / WPA, 1940. WPA Poster
Designer unknown, Women Work for Victory / WPA, 1940. To be offered in our forthcoming sale of Graphic Design. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.
 

During the early days of WWII, before the end of the WPA, many artists turned to creating vivid and direct war propaganda. An image from our upcoming Graphic Design auction is another example of a World War II-era poster that adopts the WPA format and aesthetic.

 

State & National Park Posters

 
Dorothy Waugh, State Parks, circa 1934. State Park Poster
Dorothy Waugh, State Parks, circa 1934. Sold March 1, 2018, in Vintage Posters Featuring Highlights from the Gail Chisholm Collection for $1,062.
 

Some of the most iconic and most coveted WPA posters are those promoting travel to U.S. National Parks. The beauty of our natural environment inspired artists to produce enduring imagery through some of the finest examples of graphic design. Dorothy Waugh, one of several notable female artists of the WPA era, used Modernist typography, bold graphics, and a limited palette for her posters.

 
Unknown designer, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1938. WPA National Park Poster
Unknown designer, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1938. Sold November 13, 2006, in Rare & Important Travel Posters for $6,000.
 
Unknown designer, Grand Canyon, circa 1938. WPA National Park Poster
Unknown designer, Grand Canyon, circa 1938. Sold November 13, 2006, in Rare & Important Travel Posters for $9,000.
 

In a 2006 sale of Rare & Important Travel Posters, Swann offered an exceptional run of National Park posters put forth by the US Department of the Interior and the National Park Service—each as rare, colorful and monumental as their subjects.

 
Unknown designer, Yosemite National Park, circa 1938. WPA Poster
Unknown designer, Yosemite National Park, circa 1938. Sold November 13, 2006, in Rare & Important Travel Posters for $4,320.
 

The recognizable and striking style of WPA poster art has taken on a new life today with modern environmental and political campaigns to highlight the importance of the National Parks, and saving our country’s natural resources. The WPA’s style and its historical significance lent itself perfectly to the messages of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2019 posters for the Green New Deal.

In recent years, artist Hannah Rothstein has reimagined these WPA posters to predict what the parks might look like in the future without comprehensive climate change policies.

   
 

Related Reading: Beyond Migrant Mother: Five FSA Photographers to Know and The Social Document: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’


More from Lauren Goldberg: Swann in Profile: Lauren Goldberg and #5WomenArtists – Lauren Goldberg’s List