Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Depression Era Art in Northern Virginia

     During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government set up a number of public works programs to provide work for all Americans.  One of these programs involved artists.  Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's relief administrator said in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[artists] have got to eat just like other people.”  “The Section of Fine Arts” was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. The Section's main function was to select high quality art to decorate public buildings.  One percent of the funds allocated for the construction of public buildings were set aside for “embellishments”.  Artists were paid from these funds.  By providing decoration in public buildings, art was made accessible to all people.

     Post offices were considered a prime building objective of the Roosevelt New Deal, and a prime place for the display of public art.  Large murals, depicting enduring images of the “American scene” were the artistic vehicle of choice.  Artists were chosen in open competitions to paint scenes reflecting America's history and way of life on post office walls large and small. Mural artists were provided with guidelines and themes. Scenes of local interest and events were deemed to be the most suitable.  Americans shown at work or at leisure, grace the walls of the New Deal post offices. Social realism painting, though popular at the time, was discouraged.  You will not see bread lines or labor strikes depicted in New Deal public art.  The heroic was to be celebrated and embraced. Historical events depicting courageous acts were popular themes for post office murals.

     Seven of these New Deal artistic gems still exist in Northern Virginia.  In 1940 Auriel Bessemer completed seven murals for Arlington County’s first public building, the Joseph L. Fisher Post Office in Clarendon.  Bessemer was paid $800 to paint the seven murals depicting familiar local scenes such as Great Falls and Roosevelt Island.

Read about the Rebel blockade of the Potomac River, the imprisonment of German POWs at super-secret Fort Hunt during World War II and the building of the Pentagon on the same site and in the same configuration as Civil War, era Fort Runyon. Meet Annandale's "bunny man," who inspired one of the country's wildest and scariest urban legends; learn about the slaves in Alexandria's notorious slave pens; and witness suffragists being dragged from the White House lawn and imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse. 

The history of Virginia told through treasure tales about pirates, Indians, Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War raiders. The full text of the famous Beale Treasure cipher is included along with some sixty other legends. 

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