How American Art Made Relief, Recovery, and Reform a National Project During the Great Depression | National Humanities Center

Humanities in Class: Webinar Series

How American Art Made Relief, Recovery, and Reform a National Project During the Great Depression

American History; Visual Arts; Artists; United States Government; Great Depression; New Deal

Erika Doss (Professor, Department of American Studies, University of Notre Dame)

March 7, 2023

Advisor: Megan Large, NHC Teacher Advisory Council

From 1933 to 1945, the federal government responded to the crisis of the Great Depression with the New Deal: political measures, economic programs, and cultural projects aimed at providing relief, recovery, and reform. The government also became the major patron of American art, supplying work relief for artists through projects like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Women artists, working class artists, and artists of color gained unprecedented opportunities and public visibility during the New Deal as the artistic playing field expanded to a much broader range of American art styles, exhibition spaces, and audiences.

Government arts patronage hinged on rebuilding national unity and restoring confidence in capitalism and democracy, both destabilized during the Great Depression. While New Deal art varied in style and subject, much of it aimed to reaffirm American values of hard work, perseverance, individualism, and community. In contrast with arts patronage in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, New Deal art specifically addressed America’s cultural pluralism, its multiple regional and local identities. Today, thousands of paintings, prints, posters, sculptures, and post office murals produced during the New Deal still exist. Focusing on these primary sources, this webinar considers how American art made relief, recovery, and reform a national project during the Great Depression.

Webinar Resources

Before the live webinar please be sure to review the available materials in the webinar resource folder. Use the code provided in your registration email to access these resources.

  • Doss, Erika. “Toward an Iconography of American Labor: Work, Workers, and the Work Ethic in American Art, 1930–1945.” Design Issues 13, no. 1 Designing the Modern Experience, 1885–1945 (Spring 1997): 53–66.
  • Fogel, Jared A., and Robert L. Stevens. “The Canvas Mirror: Painting as Politics in the New Deal.” Magazine of History 16, no. 1 The Great Depression (Fall 2001): 17–25.
  • Kieffer, Connie W. “New Deal Murals: A Legacy for Today’s Public Art and Art Education.” Art Education 53, no. 2 How History and Culture Come Together as Art (March 2000): 40–45.
  • Lembeck, David. “Rediscovering the People’s Art: New Deal Murals in Pennsylvania Post Offices.” Pennsylvania Heritage 34, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 28–37.
  • Musher, Sharon. “The New Deal and the Arts.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. January 28, 2022.
  • “The Living New Deal”, The University of California.
  • “Art of the New Deal”, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.
  • “New Deal Resources”, National Archives & Records Administration.
  • “The New Deal for Artists” (1979, Corinth Films, 90 mins, narrated by Orson Welles)
  • “Artists at Work” (1981, New Deal Films Inc., 34 mins)
  • “Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA” (2015, 217 Films, 98 mins)


Art / History / American History / Visual Arts / Artists / United States Government / Great Depression / New Deal /