The Great Depression An Artistic Viewpoint

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					         The Great Depression 1929-1941: An Artistic Viewpoint

                                           Created by
                                          Daniel J. Ring
                                          McRAH Fellow

                     Waukegan High School and Lake Forest College

A Perspective
Often the time of the Great Depression is explained in terms of the New Deal,
alphabet soup agencies, as a statistic of jobs lost, or the number of unemployed workers. On
occasion it is depicted in a movie such as the “Grapes of Wrath.”
With a little effort, a narrative of one person’s struggle during the depression and newsreels from
the period can also be found.

The Great Depression was more than just a number of unemployed workers. The depression was
the overriding sense of gloom that hung over the country. It was the individual sharing of the
terrible experience with fellow Americans. It was the shared struggle to work our selves out of
this dilemma

One of the goals of the recovery effort was to get as many people employed in their respective
fields as could be possible. One such effort was directed to the artistic community: the actors,
singers, dancers, playwrights and, of course, the artists.

The government, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), commissioned painters,
filmmakers, and architects to create images and edifices that reflected the American character
and spirit. The efforts of the artists were often directed to the decoration of the interior spaces of
public buildings such as post offices, schools and courthouses. However, some of the art of the
period was not created under the auspices of the WPA nor was all art confined to public

As historians much can be gained from art as history. And much can be conveyed to students
from the interpretation of the art of this period to derive the forces that motivated the artist,
his/her treatment of the subject matter, and the impression that is left upon the viewer.

There are many ways to approach the depression through its’ artists. One may follow a particular
artist in his or her treatment of various subjects. A chronological approach may be applied from
the time of the crash, into the depths and finally to the rising as the blessing of renewal became
evident. There might also be a view of a particular segment of the society, women, factory
laborers, farmers or life in the cities. The possibilities of themes are open to the mind of the
history teacher.
The artists of the Depression were given a relatively free hand in the projects that they wanted to
pursue. And it should be noted that not all artists of the depression era worked as a part of the
WPA. Many held private commissions; for example, the artists of the Rockefeller Center project
worked on their own. Therefore all art of the period, which reflected the time of the Great
Depression, can be considered to be of advantage in the teaching of this period.

Product Development
Time is short. A teacher of United States history can only devote a limited amount of time to
various periods. Using a themed approach to a broad topic, for example, the role of women, can
extend the amount of teaching time on a particular topic using various perspectives and time
periods. But in the case of the Great Depression, because it was a unique event in American
history by being a great force for change on the structure and fabric of the nation, it is necessary
to take in its impact completely to fully understand the changes that flowed from this event over
the next seventy-five years.

A teacher can recite a statistic that may be remembered until the end of the period. But a picture
is worth a thousand words. Consider the impact of a picture of a worker standing before a locked
factory gate or a mother mending already mended clothes.
Suddenly, “the one out of four unemployed” becomes this particular man. “Spending of
consumer goods declines” becomes this one woman because she cannot buy her children new
clothes. Then the comments and questions flow from the students.

With the wise selection of certain images (10 to 20) and the application of thought provoking
prompts, students will speculate and offer critical analysis of the images and will postulate as to
causes and outcomes. The activity will encourage discussion and argument and will stimulate
students to seek other sources to support their positions relative to the visual.

The Objective
The goal, which is sought in this exercise, is to elicit an empathetic response from the students,
and a deep understanding of the conditions which society faced during the Great Depression. I
wish to have the students come to a realization that it was through the human spirit and the total
effort of government and the business community that hope and prosperity was restored in the
United States.

It is also the goal to have art interpretation tell the story of The Great Depression. I wish to have
the students come to understand how the use of light and dark can depict a mood. It is intended
that students will be able to interpret how the intensity and placement of color sets a tone for the
picture. From this evaluation of art I would desire that students come to an understanding of the
mores and values of the society that endured the Great Depression.
The Choice of Art
In the age of the Internet finding suitable images is not difficult. A Google image search is
probably the quickest and easiest. However, you can expect to spend twenty minutes searching
for each suitable image. As a word of caution most images can be used for single purpose
educational use without worry of copyright violations, but publication of the images needs
permission of the copyright owner.

For this project I found that directing the search engine to keywords such as “wpamurals”, “New Deal”,
”WPA art”, “post office art” or under the name of a particular artist, were good ways of starting. In some
cases if the piece of art is in the collection of a university or gallery you can also obtain a description of
the piece.

The order in which art is presented to the students is a matter of teacher’s choice depending on which
emphasis is to be given to the lesson. That being the case, I chose to use a “gloom to bloom” scenario.
The images (occasionally with background information) are listed below.

       1.      Dorothea Lange          “Migrant Mother” (original in black and white)

       2.      Leonard Havens          “Industrial Reflections” (original in black and yellow)

       3.      Ben Shahn               “Years of Dust” (original in color)

       4.      Robert C. Purdy         “Kentucky Tobacco Field” (original in green)

       5.      Mitchell Siporin        “Fusion of Agriculture & Industry in Illinois” (original
                                       in color) (Illinois Post Office Collection)

       6.      Charles Pollock         Untitled (original in black and white)

       7.      Artist Unknown          Professions (sic) (original in black and white)

       8.      Williams Schwartz       “Mining in Illinois” (original in color)
                                       (Illinois Post Office Collection)

       9.      Williams Schwartz       “River Boat and Bridge” (original in color)
                                       (Illinois Post Office Collection)

Analysis Questions
Image One      Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”

                      What is shown?
                      How many persons are depicted?
                   What do you think the mother is saying or thinking?
                   Why are the children hiding their heads?
                   How do you think this woman arrived in this situation?
                   What would a neighbor say about this woman?
                   What would a communist say about her condition?
                   What do you think are her goals?
                   What do you think she will do to change her situation?
                   Can she make the change on her own?
                   What do you think happened to her?

Image Two    Leonard Haves’s “Industrial Reflections”

                   What is shown?
                   How many persons are depicted?
                   Why do you think this artwork was done in black?
                   What can you tell us about the factory and the boats?
                   Why do you think this is so?
                   Is this why there are no people present?
                   What would various people say caused this condition?

Image Three Ben Shahn’s “Years of Dust”

                   What is shown? (You may need to draw students’ attention to the headline
                    of the newspaper, the dust blowing in the upper left and the child in the
                   How do you think the man feels?
                   Is there a way that the man can get help?
                   What is it?
                   What does it do?
                   Who do you think sponsors the help the man needs?
                   What do you think the socialists would say about this man’s condition?

Image Four Robert C. Purdy’s “Kentucky Tobacco Field”

                   What is shown?
                   How is this image different from the previous images?
                   Is this image an accurate picture of the nation as a whole? Why or why
                   Is this picture a step backward in economic progress?
                   What parts of our society are not depicted?

Image Five   Mitchell Siporin’s “Fusion of Agriculture & Industry in Illinois”

                   What is shown?
                   What activities are being performed?
                    Are there any items in the picture that are symbolic? (You may need to
                     refresh the students’ minds of the meaning of symbolism.)
                    From the title of the mural what is meant by “fusion”?
                    How is this image different from the previous images?
                    Can you describe a change in the temperament of the people in the mural
                     from previous images of the mother and the man on the porch?

Image Six    Charles Pollock’s Untitled

                    What is shown?
                    What do you think this image represents?
                    How do you think that is shown in the picture?
                    Why do you think the men have their shirts off?
                    What do you think the central standing figure is doing?
                    What does the man in the front center seem to be working with and what
                     does it symbolize?
                    Can you interpret any other images?

Image Seven Artist Unknown “Professions”

                    What is shown?
                    How many different jobs are being shown?
                    What kind of work is being done?
                    What role do you think government played in The Great Depression?
                    What is symbolic about this picture?
                    What is the central feature of this picture?
                    What does it represent?
                    What role did government play in the creation of this condition?
                    What can you say about the individual people shown?
                    Does this picture try to depict a broad spectrum of Americans?
                    Can you show examples to support your opinion?

Image Eight Williams Schwartz’s “Mining in Illinois”

                    What is shown?
                    What was the importance of coal to America?
                    What are the three orange items on either side of the picture and the one in
                     the center?
                    Why does the center of the picture seem to be brighter than the foreground
                     or the sides?
                    Can you think of an expression that describes improving conditions after a
                     long struggle? (Light at the end of the tunnel.)
                    How and why would this image depict the latter part of The Great
                     Depression rather than its start?
Image Nine     Williams Schwartz’s “River Boat and Bridge”

                      What is shown?
                      Why is it bright just across the bridge?
                      What is the meaning of the bridge in the picture?
                      What do you think the people are doing and saying?
                      What might the boat represent?
                      What do you think the abundant use of the color green represents?
                      What is much different from this picture and the previous pictures? (No
                       struggle, no despair, industrial improvements??)

A Reflection
As time passes the impact of The Great Depression on individuals will be lost. Although those
who lived at that time will be gone, what will not be lost is the scope of the fundamental changes
that resulted from the period. Americans found a new sense of individual strength and a greater
understanding of mutual alliance. America restructured its government to accommodate a
changed world in political relationships and a world of technological advancement. It created
institutions to support and assist its citizens. The government encouraged industrial, scientific,
legal, and social improvements.

An Evaluation
At the conclusion of this project students will be asked to write an essay describing the Great
Depression, its effect on people, and the things that were needed from the nation to improve the
economy and restore hope.
Students will be asked to consider what specific actions by individuals and government were
needed to grant relief and speed recovery. Using additional sources students will be asked to
describe how the role of government changed as a result of The Great Depression. With what
degree of accuracy did the images portray the real conditions in America during The Great

Additional comments in the essay should include values in American life that were held to be
important as a result of The Great Depression. What might be the attitudes of the adults that lived
through The Great Depression and what might be the attitudes of their children who would later
serve in World War II and establish families in the 1950’s?

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