New Deal Era Murals

Federally funded murals during the Great Depression

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The economic programs of the New Deal provided tangible relief to Americans during the Great Depression while also providing hope and inspiration. From 1934 to 1945, the Section of Fine Arts employed artists to create original artworks for federal buildings, including at post offices.

Central to most communities, the post office was the ideal location to reach Americans with art that would inspire public pride. Artists competed anonymously to win commissions for those artworks. A local citizen committee reviewed the submissions and made an initial selection to be approved by the Section. Countless artists sent in studies (artworks done in preparation for a finished piece) for murals in specific locations. None of these studies displayed at the Museum were selected for murals, but they are representative of New Deal Era themes and artistic styles and speak to the process artists underwent as they competed for the prestigious commissions.

Texas was awarded 106 artworks for 69 post offices and federal buildings through New Deal programs. One-third of the post office murals depicted historical subjects. The artworks centered on scenes from “better times” to show how the present would itself pass into history with “better times” ahead. With 13 million people out of work nationally in 1933, themes of labor were also prominent. Showing people at work in industries specific to the mural’s location was meant as motivation and encouragement. In Texas, the most frequently depicted industries were oil, cotton, timber, and ranching.

American Scene painting was a popular style of the New Deal’s art programs that were meant to inspire and uplift Americans. Post office murals in particular were intended to feature daily rural and city life and regional historical subjects. The American Scene style of art was popular during the 1930s and 1940s and encompassed rural American Regionalism and urban Social Realism where artists depicted scenes of typical American life in a natural, realist style. Directly inspired by Mexican Muralism, American Scene painting conveyed nationalism and nostalgic memory.

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New Deal Era Murals Artifact from Austin, TX
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