The writing is on the wall. Millions of artists are out of work and unsure of if and when they will return to work on commissions, performing, or teaching.
Yet artwork on the walls of several buildings in the region provides a reminder of another era when millions, including artists, lost their jobs: The Great Depression, 1929 to 1941.
One of the solutions for artists was the creation of murals and reliefs in public buildings through the publicly funded Work Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.
It was one of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal work relief initiatives that put American to work on a variety of projects for government buildings and services.
The Federal Art Project was suggested to Roosevelt by his childhood friend and fellow Groton School student, American artist George Biddle.
While Roosevelt had some initial misgivings and concerns that some artists may see their involvement as the opportunity to provide social critiques that could cause controversy — just as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had done by painting communist leader Vladimir Lenin on a 1933 mural commissioned by the Rockefeller Family — the president eventually encouraged the unprecedented government patronage art project to advance.
The result was both the creation of thousands of works of art and the support of a generation of artists who later became major American innovators. That list includes Jackson Pollack, Louise Nevelson, Jacob Lawrence, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and scores of others who were able to continue to develop their art.
The project also brought design, images, color, and scenes from history, literature, and daily life into the lives of millions of Americans — as it continues to do today in many of the region’s public buildings.
And while it is often considered quaint or politically incorrect, it is worth a moment to stop and remember what it is and how it got there.
New Jersey’s most celebrated WPA art project mural is in Roosevelt, a town created by the New Deal. Originally called Jersey Homesteads, the town people who moved there to work in factories and farms renamed it to honor the president whose program gave them the opportunities to make a living and own a home during the Depression.
The mural’s artist is Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist from Brooklyn who settled in Roosevelt.
Shahn was an illustrator, painter, muralist, and photographer who had worked with Rivera on the Rockefeller mural and created a personal style successfully combining social consciousness and modern aesthetics.
Located in the Roosevelt Public School, the 12 x 45 foot fresco captures the energies of the era and the making of the town.
It is divided into three panels. One shows Jewish immigrants arriving in America — that includes Albert Einstein as well as Shahn’s mother. Nearby are factory sweatshops and tenements and the coffin-bound bodies of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, whose controversial execution was said to be linked to anti-Italian and anti-immigrant sentiments.
The second panel depicts the emergence of trade unions and features famed union organizer John L. Lewis near the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory, a sweatshop where lax safety conditions contributed to the deaths of 145 young women workers in a fire.
The final section shows the development of Jersey Homesteads as a workers’ cooperative. According to an explanatory text created by the Roosevelt Arts Project, the men surrounding the town’s blueprint “are the architect Alfred Kastner (with his back to us), and, (from top to bottom), Heywood Broun (activist/journalist), Rexford Guy Tugwell (economist/New Deal advisor), Senator Robert Wagner (principal author of the National Labor Relations Act), Sidney Hillman (advisor to FDR and in 1936 the founder of the American Labor Party), and John Brophy (first national director of the Congress of Industrial Organizations).”
In addition to being a daring work of art by an American and New Jersey master, it is a document of a time and a commemoration
Two WPA public art projects can be found in Trenton.
The first can be found in the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse located at 402 East State Street, near Trenton City Hall.
The New Deal construction was one of the few federal buildings originally designed to house a post office containing three murals.
The artist selected for the project conducted from 1934 through 1937 was prominent regional artist Charles Ward (1900-1962), who would later become a noted faculty member of the Trenton School of Industrial Arts.
The artist chose to use oil paint on panels to depict three thematically different scenes.
One is “Progress of Industry.” Situated over the East State Street entrance, the work is a sweeping view of the workers bringing a Trenton factory to life. While its placement connects it to city hall’s Trenton industry mural a few blocks away, its inclusion of workers of African descent demonstrates a cultural and social change. It also reflects Ward’s previous experience of working in a Trenton factory with his father.
Ward’s “The Second Battle of Trenton” follows a WPA practice of depicting history. This one shows the climax of Washington’s 1777 night battle with the Hessians. According to materials from the Historical Society of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, “Ward spent months researching the battle and the uniforms and artillery of both sides. He wanted to show ‘our men in action,’ and in a collage of perspective, meticulously included different elements of their efforts as they repelled the advancing Hessian troops on the far right. The heroism of the Revolutionary War was an ideal subject for public murals as it could be seen as a metaphor for the battle that America was fighting against the Depression, as well as a reminder of national strength.”
The last is “Rural Delivery.” Utilizing one of the U.S. Post Office’s favorite themes, postal service, this work uses then-contemporary techniques to compress scenes of people receiving baby chicks, packages, and letters that show how vital the post office was to the farming communities outside Trenton.
While the murals are worth a look, it is difficult to do so because of the tight post 9-11 security regulations at government buildings. However, “Progress of Industry” is at one of the entrances, and a preliminary sketch is in the New Jersey State Museum down the street from the courthouse.
The other WPA mural project can be found in Trenton Central High School on Chambers Street.
Originally designed for the former high school but integrated into the design of the new one, “Youth Carrying the Heritage of the Arts of the Past into the Future” is a set of four mosaics representing the academic pursuits of painting and sculpture, architecture and engineering, science and research, and music, theater, and dance.
Their artist is the Welsh-born Monty Lewis (1907 to 1997), who came to New York City as a teenager, studied at the Art Students League in New York from 1924 to 1928, received a 1929 award from the Tiffany Foundation, and was invited to join the WPA’s original group.
With an approach that emphasized subject movement, Lewis was also known for looking beyond paint to create durable and luminous murals. That interest led him to become the head of the WPA’s mosaic division.
The choice of tiles connects to Trenton’s then prominent tile, porcelain, and ceramics industries, also represented in the former building’s design.
Now situated in wall recesses at the two sides of the main building entrance, they continue to encourage students and visitors with their elegant presence.
In Princeton, the former Palmer Square Post Office houses artist Karl Free’s “Columbia under the Palm.”
Free (1903 to 1947) of Davenport, Iowa, won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York and became a founding curator of the Whitney Museum and a designer for Ballet Caravan.
His 1939 Princeton work depicting the idealized personification of the nation also created controversy during its day and again in 2015 when the building was sold to LCOR Ventures.
Neither had anything to do with Lenin.
While a great percentage of artists participating in the WPA had leftist and modernist leanings, Free was described by as Nazi sympathizer inclined to depicting Native and African Americans as subservient to white colonists — as indicated in the two murals he created for the arts program.
But what got him in his first controversy was his deviation from WPA themes and intent to promote Western European art traditions and reference European works.
As Karal Ann Marling notes in “Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression,” Free’s designs for Princeton showed “the difference between a sound historian and an academic reactionary disguised as a sound historian.”
She describes his work as “an indiscriminate pastiche of great moments form the Old Masters: a mannerist putto floating here, a trumpeting Fame from the School of the Carracci hovering there, a colonial dame in the Rococo manner drooping about the foreground, and a clutch of Trumbull founding fathers parading across one corner.”
So how did this “art-historical stew,” as Marling calls it, get approved?
Although Free had previously provided a similar approach to a Washington, D.C., WPA project and was criticized by WPA administrators (aka the Section), they mistakenly kept him on their roster of artists.
When he came to Princeton, Marling says he “served up his reheated leftovers with the complicity of Charles Rufus Morey, chairman of the art and archaeology department at Princeton University, who was also the chairman of the local, ad hoc citizen’s advisory committee on the post-office mural. Having taken Free on under the impression that he was, at heart, an attentive student of documentary fact, the (Princeton division of the WPA) felt honor-bound to accept a picture limned with the fine Italian hand of an arch-conservative. Having given the local committee carte blanche to speak for the community, the Section was stuck with their favorable decision. The lunette certainly looked like art, too; if the rest of the Princeton hated ‘Columbia Under the Palm,’ nobody came forward to say so. The Section’s only recourse was to strike Karl Free’s name from the list of candidates for further commissions.”
Today’s controversy focuses on Free’s prejudicial depictions of non-Caucasians and its connection to racism and slavery.
At the corner of Walnut and Prince streets the Bordentown Post Office’s 1940 mural “Skating on Bonaparte’s Pond” depicts a scene that follows a WPA intent to combine local history and lore.
According to an article titled “A Painted History of the American Post Office” that appeared in Esquire Magazine, “In researching local Bordentown, New Jersey, history for this 1940 commission, (artist) Avery Johnson (1906-1990) happened upon a steel engraving of the home of Joseph Bonaparte (older brother of Napoleon I and former King of Spain) perched at the top of a hill. Local lore had it that every winter, Bonaparte opened his pond to local children for ice-skating. While the children skated, Bonaparte would roll oranges and apples on the ice for them to chase.”
Johnson painted several Post Office murals across the country and later taught at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey and the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts.
The mural is on view during regular post office hours.
And at the downtown New Brunswick Post Office on Bayard Street, there is a three-section work created in 1930 by the artist credited with inspiring the WPA arts project, George Biddle (1885 to 1973).
The pieces depicting historic moments connected with the city and the Revolutionary War are “George Washington with DeWitt, Geographer of the Revolutionary Army,” “Howe and Cornwallis Entering New Brunswick,” and “Washington Retreating from New Brunswick.”
A member of the prominent Philadelphia Biddle family, the artist broke with the family tradition of practicing law and, although he earned a law degree, studied art in Europe and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
While knowledgeable about French impressionism and contemporary European art, he was drawn to social realism and depicted everyday scenes while traveling the United States and Mexico, where he interacted with Diego Rivera and the Mexican mural movement.
In 1935 composer George Gershwin commissioned Biddle to provide his interpretations of life in the South for the illustrations of a limited edition of the libretto for Gershwin’s jazz opera, “Porgy and Bess.”
Considered conservative by many, Biddle was a capable artist interested in pursuing a specific vision in spite of changing arts movements.
However, he made a lasting mark on American art when during the Great Depression he wrote the following to Roosevelt: “There is a matter which I have long considered and which some day might interest your administration. . . . The younger artists of America are conscious as they have never been of the social revolution that our country and civilization are going through; and they would be eager to express these ideals in a permanent art form if they were given the government’s co-operation. They would be contributing to and expressing in living monuments the social ideals that you are struggling to achieve. And I am convinced that our mural art with a little impetus can soon result, for the first time in our history, in a vital national expression.”
Perhaps it is time to revisit the idea.