Saturday, April 7, 2012

America @ Work: New Deal Murals in New London and Beyond - Lyman Allyn Art Museum New London

Thomas Sergeant LaFarge
Aloft (Preparatory drawing for mural on East wall in New London Post Office)
20th Century
Charcoal on Paper
15 x 71 inches
Gift of Mrs. Thomas LaFarge

Lyman Allyn Art Museum's exhibition, America @ Work: New Deal Murals in New London and Beyond, is on view through June 9, 2012. The exhibition has been organized by Guest Curator Barbara Zabel, Professor Emeritus of Art History at Connecticut College.

The lobby of the New London Post Office on Masonic Street boasts remarkable murals painted in the 1930s. Hailed by Philip Eliasoph as “the Sistine Chapel of Connecticut,” these murals by New England artist Thomas La Farge (1904-1942) feature scenes of a crew at work on a whaling ship. La Farge’s murals were created under the auspices of the art projects of the New Deal, President Roosevelt’s comprehensive relief program designed to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression.

The Lyman Allyn Art Museum is fortunate to have in its collection the artist’s preliminary studies for the murals; these are the local inspiration for the exhibition. The aim of America @ Work: New Deal Murals in New London and Beyond is to bring attention to our often overlooked local treasures in the context of New Deal murals in other states. The government funded hundreds of murals in federal buildings across the country, typically providing artists with a list of topics pertinent to local history. The artists were then free to choose their own content. Thomas La Farge was quick to identify whaling as an apt theme for murals in New London, a city long known as the “Whaling City.” Other artists in the exhibition chose topics such as the cotton industry in North Carolina, corn harvesting in Georgia, onion farming in upstate New York, processing steel in Ohio, and pioneering and mining in Idaho.

Although the artists included in America @ Work: New Deal Murals in New London and Beyond are from distant corners of America, they share a focus on working Americans. More notably, they espouse an uplifting message of pride in American ingenuity and a belief that the country’s economic woes could be overcome through hard work—this in the face of the stark realities of life in America, a country suffering from significant hardship and unemployment during the Great Depression.

These works also resonate with today’s economic climate; the American population is again faced with economic challenges unheard of since the Great Depression. The government’s establishment of the New Deal art projects of the 1930s provides a provocative model of how to get America back to work while also enriching our cultural heritage.

Doris Lee
Cornfield (Preparatory drawing for mural Georgia Countryside, Summerville, Georgia, 1939)
Pencil on Paper
15 ¼ x 18 ½ inches
Courtesy D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc. and the Estate of Doris Lee

Charles Ward
Story of Cotton (Mural Study for Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina Post Office)
Oil on Canvas
16 ½ x 24 ½ inches
Courtesy D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc. and the Estate of Charles Ward