One of the Depression's first casualties was the art market. Wealthy collectors stopped buying and major patrons reined in their spending. Dozens of art galleries went under, and those that survived did so with great difficulty. A whole generation of aspiring artists had no prospects, and even work by well-established figures lacked buyers. Growing frustration and despair led many of them to a new-found identification with other victims of the economic crisis. An art of social content and wide accessibility gained favor, as artists sought common ground and a mass, democratized market. From their search came the concept of a "people's art." They produced paintings, drawings, and prints in which urban and industrial scenes coexist with images of the land, suggesting connections between working people of all types, from builders and miners to soldiers, farmers, and office girls. "The early 1930s were coldly sobering years," the painter Louis Guglielmi recalled later in the decade. "Faced with the terror of the realities of the day, [the artist] could no longer justify the shaky theory of individualism and the role of spectator." He concluded that "The time has come when painters are returning to the life of the people once again and by so doing are absorbing the richness, the vitality, and the lusty healthiness inherent in the people."

The Associated American Artists (AAA) distributed many of Thomas Hart Benton's lithographs, including Goin' Home, as merchandise in department stores and through mail order, democratizing art by making it available to people who lacked the means to buy more costly art. Benton commented on this lithograph: "From a drawing made 1928--in North Carolina Smokey Mountain country. With a companion driving the car I followed these mill people till the drawing was finished."

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Goin' Home, 1937. Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975. Lithograph. Printed by George Miller. Distributed by Associated American Artists. LC-USZC4-6587 © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y. (7)

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A native of Kansas, Bernard Steffen brought a rural sensibility to New York, where he studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Benton's influence is evident in Dusty Plowing, which Steffen created for the New York City WPA Federal Art Project. Steffen, however, focused on landscape and eschewed the romance and narrative that marked the Regionalists.

 

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Dusty Plowing, ca. 1939. Bernard Joseph Steffen, 1907-1980. Lithograph. Stamped: New York City WPA Art Project. LC-USZC4-6559 (54)

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The darker side of the Regionalist vision of America is evident in John Steuart Curry's many powerful depictions of the African American experience. Born in Kansas, Curry studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago before heading east to work as a professional illustrator. His focus on farm subjects and the American Midwest led many to consider him a leading Regionalist along with Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Manhunt, a variation on a 1931 painting of the same title, shows a lynch mob in Kansas.

 

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Manhunt, 1934. John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946. Lithograph. Published in The American Scene, no. 2 (New York: Contemporary Print Group, 1934). LC-USZC4-6579 © Mrs. John Steuart Curry. (12)

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In 1937 Joe Jones received a Guggenheim fellowship to create a pictorial record of conditions in the dust bowl, of which Wastelands is an example. Born in St. Louis, he quit school at age fifteen to work as a house painter. Winning his first award in 1931, Jones gained the attention of St. Louis patrons who financed his travel to the artists' colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Returning to St. Louis, he alienated his supporters with the pronouncement that he had joined the Communist Party, so Jones signed up for the Public Works of Art Project in 1934.

 

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Wastelands, 1937. Joe Jones, 1909-1963. Lithograph. Distributed by the American Artists' Group. LC-USZC4-6603 © Grace Adams Jones. (27)

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The Log Cabin, a roadhouse in Cross River, Westchester County, New York, where she and her husband Alexander Brook made their summer home from 1927 until 1937, provided the setting for Rural Retreat. Born in Ridgefield, Connecticut, she attended the School of Applied Arts for Women in New York City in 1913 and studied landscape painting with Jonas Lie on Long Island in 1914. From 1915 until 1920 she studied at the Art Students League, where she came under the influence of instructors Kenneth Hayes Miller and John Sloan.

 

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Rural Retreat, 1930. Peggy Bacon, 1895-1987. Lithograph. LC-USZC4-6585 © Estate of Peggy Bacon. (2)

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In spite of his European training Meyer Wolfe often returned to his native roots in his art, as in this 1934 portrayal of African Americans in a Nashville, Tennessee dance hall. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Wolfe grew up in Nashville and studied in Chicago at the Academy of Fine Arts and then at New York's Art Students League under John Sloan. In New York, Wolfe worked as a newspaper illustrator. In 1926 he went to Paris to train under Pierre Lauren at the Académie Julien.

 

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Red Eye's Hall, 1934. Meyer Wolfe, 1897-1985. Lithograph. LC-USZC4-6558 (60)

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Born in Missouri, James Allen worked as a magazine illustrator, traveling to Paris in 1925, where he shared a studio with fellow printmaker Howard Cook. There he experimented with various artistic media, making lithographs and etchings for the first time. Forced by the Depression to return to the United States, he moved to New York, continuing to hone his skills as a printmaker under Joseph Pennell and William Auerbach-Levy. Industrial scenes and muscular images of men working on railroads, buildings, and bridges form a large part of his graphic repertoire.

 

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Distress, 1938. James E. Allen, 1894-1964. Lithograph. Published in Collier's, September 17, 1938. LC-USZC4-6581 © Estate of James E. Allen. (1)

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Graphic arts historian and curator Carl Zigrosser considered Lamar Baker "one of the first native artists to reckon with the problems of the new South." Leaving his native Atlanta in 1935 to attend Harry Sternberg's classes at the Art Students League in New York, Baker produced there his largest body of prints, the so-called Cotton Series, consisting of twelve lithographs of which Fabric is one. Baker's portfolio combines mysticism, magic, and symbolic imagery of cotton production with compassion for the sharecropper's daily struggle for dignity and subsistence.

 

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Fabric, 1940. Lamar Baker, 1908-1993. Lithograph. LC-USZC4-6580 © Estate of Lamar Baker. (4)

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Wanda Gág, who was a painter, a printmaker, and an award-winning children's book illustrator, said of her work, "A still life is never still for me, it is solidified energy." In Winter Garden the movement of the cats interacts with the rugs under the plants, which themselves seem to dance.

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Winter Garden, 1935. Wanda Gág, 1893-1946. Lithograph. Distributed by the American Artists Group, Inc. LC-USZC4-6583 © Estate of Wanda Gág. (18)

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Clare Leighton's wood engraving The Baptism, or The Baptizing, illustrated text concerning folk beliefs about childhood in the first volume of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. The artist received a commission to illustrate the seven-volume series while she was visiting lecturer in art at Duke University in 1943-44. She traveled to the North Carolina mountains on a research trip in 1946, completing illustrations for the entire series by December 1950.

 

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The Baptism, ca. 1948. Clare Leighton, 1898-1989. Wood engraving. Published in The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, vol. 1 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1952), facing p. 226. LC-USZC4-6590 © David Leighton. (29)

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Prentiss Taylor began his artistic career working in an abstract style, adopting realism under the direction of Charles Locke at the Art Students League in 1931. His interest in African American life and culture deepened during his publishing collaboration with the author and poet Langston Hughes that same year and through his intermittent travels to South Carolina, including a 1934 trip supported by the New York City WPA. He made 137 prints in his lifetime, varying in style and theme, his subject matter ranging from life in the American South to the architecture of Spain.

 

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Assembly Church, 1936. Prentiss Taylor, 1907-1991. Lithograph. LC-USZC4-6592 © Estate of Prentiss Taylor. (56)

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Born in South Carolina, Elizabeth White went north to Philadelphia--and later to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire--for formal art study. For most of her life she lived in the South, and the landscape and people of her native region remained a dominant and evocative presence in her work.

 

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All God's Chillun' Got Wings!, ca. 1933. Elizabeth White, 1893-1976. Soft-ground etching and aquatint. LC-USZC4-6164 © Sumter Gallery of Art, Sumter, South Carolina. (58)

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