March 2022

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

A Silver Lining

 “Mercury,” 1939

“Mercury,” 1939
Bas Relief, by Peter Paul Ott for the Kedzie-Grace Post Office, Chicago
Courtesy, New Deal Art Registry

With the economy in shambles and one in four workers unemployed, FDR appointed Harry Hopkins to come up with programs to provide relief. Public works projects would provide millions of jobs and become the backbone of the economic recovery. Hopkins recognized that artists, too, needed work. “Hell,” he said, “they’ve got to eat just like other people!”
The WPA’s Federal Arts Project hired thousands of visual artists to produce paintings, murals, prints, crafts and sculptures for the government buildings being constructed throughout the country. The Federal Music Project and Federal Theater Project hired thousands more, bringing the performing arts to cities and towns, alike. The Great Depression cast a dark cloud over the nation. The New Deal arts programs were the silver lining.


In this Issue:

Los Tres Grandes

Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros

Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros

At the end of Mexico’s long revolution (1910-1920), a time of stability emerged. The newly elected government of President Alvero Obregón dedicated funds for construction, education and the arts.

Postmaster James M. Allen and WPA artists Mitchell Siporin, Edgar Britton, and Edward Millman examine a small-scale study for their Decatur, Illinois post office murals.
Courtesy, Illinois Periodicals Online.

With the aid of his Minister of Education José Vasconcelos, Obregón launched a national initiative to build schools and employed artists to decorate the walls with murals. From this program, three leading talents emerged, often referred to as Los Tres Grandes: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Employing modernist imagery with social justice themes, these multiple mural projects celebrated Mexico’s indigenous heritage and promoted Socialist views held by many artists and much of the world art that time. 

Mexican art had a profound effect on young American artists and can be seen in the murals, prints, photographs and easel paintings created under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal art programs.

The Barricade, 1931

The Barricade, 1931
By José Clemente Orozco. The Mexican Muralist movement asserted the importance of large-scale public art. Orozco’s social realism, solidarity with workers and the struggle for freedom and justice are themes often seen in works by WPA muralists. Courtesy, MOMA.

Fresco Detail, Central Post Office Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1941

Fresco Detail, Central Post Office Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1941
By Edward Millman. The largest single commission by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, nine murals depicting the history of Missouri, by WPA artists Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin, reflect the strong influence of Mexican muralists. Courtesy, Swann Galleries.














By the end of Obregón’s 4-year term as president funding for Mexico’s mural projects had declined. Los Tres Grandes sought mural commissions in the United States, beginning with Orozco, who completed the first of his three American murals, Prometheus, at Pomona College in Claremont, California in 1930.

"Prometheus," 1930

"Prometheus," 1930
Jose Clemente Orozco’s fresco mural at Pomona College depicts the Greek Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the heavens to give to humans was the first modern fresco in the United States. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

Jackson Pollock, who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project from 1938 to 1942, traveled to California to see Orozco’s mural and was so inspired he kept an image of Prometheus in his New York studio.  Mitchell Siporin and Edward Millman also studied the murals of Orozco before starting their mural series for the St. Louis, Missouri, Post Office. The resulting nine frescos were the largest single mural project commissioned under the Treasury Section for a post office.

Between 1930 and 1933, Diego Rivera created murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York City. His fresco series, Detroit Industry Murals, completed in 1933 for the Detroit Institute of Art, consists of 27 panels spanning four walls and depicts industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit. Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads, 1933, commissioned by the Rockefeller family for Rockefeller Center, was famously destroyed after Rivera refused to remove the image of Vladimir Lenin from the composition.

Rivera would later recreate the mural in Mexico City. Not only did Rivera influence American artists through his artwork and activism, he also taught several artists that would go on to use their learned fresco craft under the employ of the WPA, including: Seymour Fogel, Emmy Lou Packard, Thelma Johnson Streat, Mine Okubo, and Edna Wolff.

"Industry Murals," 1932

"Industry Murals," 1932
Famed muralist Diego Rivera painted the frescoes surrounding the courtyard at the Detroit Institute of Art. He considered the mural series his finest work.
Photo: Susan Ives.

"Automobile Industry," 1941

"Automobile Industry," 1941
WPA artist William Gropper, a student of Diego Rivera, painted this mural at the Northwestern Branch Postal Station in Detroit.It now resides at the Wayne State University Student Center. Courtesy,

The influence of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros can clearly be seen in works by such New Deal artists as Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Ben Shahn, William Gropper, Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, the most politically progressive of the “Tres Grandes,” would complete only one mural in America. América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos (“Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism”) was completed on a 2nd floor exterior wall of the Italian Hall in Los Angeles in 1932. Within six months the portion of the mural visible from the street was whitewashed by conservative city authorities. In 2012, the work was reintroduced to the public after an extensive restoration and renovation funded by the Getty Foundation.

Mural, 1943

Mural, 1943
Jackson Pollack, who studied with Siqueiros in New York, was influenced by the muralist’s unconventional use of industrial-grade paints and materials. Courtesy,

Siqueiros’ unconventional use of industrial-grade paints and materials influenced Jackson Pollock and other modernist American painters who studied under Siqueiros in his Experimental Workshop, which he opened in New York City in 1936.

The Mexican muralists inspired a generation of New Deal artists whose work helped to form a modern American identity, one rooted in pride and tenacity, expressing hope through the imagery of hardship.

Harold Porcher is Director of Modern and Post-War Art at Swann galleries, New York. He has worked in galleries and auction houses, curating exhibitions and writing on various art topics such as American Modernism, Post-War Abstraction, Latin-American Art and much more.

Black in the Limelight: The New Deal’s Negro Theater Project

The WPA Federal Theatre Negro Unit presents Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Artist: Anthony Velonis. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

It was April 14,1936 and the nation was mired deep in the Great Depression. But joy could be found that night in Harlem at the Lafayette Theatre. It was the glitzy world premiere of the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, directed by the 20-year-old Orson Welles.

Traffic was stopped for blocks. Audiences, abuzz with anticipation, crowded into the theater lobby wearing suits, ties and tipped fedoras; ball gowns, pearls and fur stoles.

 “Voodoo MacBeth,” set at a fictional Caribbean island featuring an all-Black cast. “There was [sic] so many curtain calls that they finally left the curtain open,” Welles would recall. “When the play ended, the audience came up to the stage to congratulate the actors.” The show would be sold out for weeks. It was a smashing success and helped promote Black theatre and Black artists.

Harlem Federal Theatre Project production of MacBeth. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Created in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s economic recovery program, the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP), was the federal government’s most ambitious effort ever to organize and produce live theatre events. The FTP was not so much meant to provide cultural activities as it was to employ artists, writers, directors, actors and other theater workers.

There were 1,200 FTP production companies across the country, at one point employing some 12,700 people. Nine out of every ten of these workers came from the relief rolls.

Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project on CBS Radio for Federal Theater of the Air, 1936. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

The Negro Units, also called the Negro Theatre Project (NTP) had offices in 23 cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Los Angeles, Raleigh, and New Orleans. Hallie Flanagan, the FTP’s director, insisted on observing the WPA’s policy against racial discrimination, providing much-needed employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theatre technicians and playwrights.

“Voodoo MacBeth” was the NTP’s most successful production. Many others were also well-received by critics and the public. The NTP performed classics by Shakespeare and Shaw as well as contemporary works, many focused on racial injustice, such as Frank Wilson’s drama Walk Together, Children, about the forced deportation of one hundred African American children from the South to the North to work menial jobs, and Go Down Moses, about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Federal Theatre poster for George Bernard Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion,” a production of the Negro Theatre Project. Artist: Richard Halls, Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The NTP also performed Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen’s mystery, The Conjure Man Dies and The Swing Mikado, a jazz version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera.

Though it lasted only four years, the FTP played in some 200 theaters nationwide to 30 million people—many of them never having experienced live theater before.

Congress terminated the FTP in 1939 following a series of hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Subcommittee on Appropriations investigating the FTP’s leftist commentary on social and economic issues.

Propelled during the Great Depression, Black theater is thriving eight decades after “Voodoo MacBeth” opened in New York City. Many organizations nurture the Black performing arts, such as Pittsburgh’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Los Angeles’s Ebony Repertory Theatre; Houston’s Ensemble Theatre, National Black Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, Pyramid Theatre Company and Harlem Stage.

WPA Federal Theatre Negro Unit in “Noah,” a human comedy. Artist: Aida McKenzie. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

This year, the Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company, plans to host the Next Narrative Monologue Competition, in which high school students perform the works of contemporary Black playwrights. The finalists will appear at the fabled Apollo Theatre in Harlem, just a few blocks from where NTP actors had performed Shakespeare to the delight of audiences and themselves.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.