Social Realism (1935-1943)

The US government was the major patron of Social Realism during the Great Depression. President Roosevelt’s New Deal established the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  This was extended to artists through the Federal Art Project (FAP). The art produced was to serve the community or specified government agendas. It funded community art centers as well, several in Black communities. A total of $85 million was spent in the arts, and aided 10,000 artists. Subject matter portrayed a heroic working class, epic political history, and promoted quality. Black artists working under the FAP showed themes of racial discrimination, poverty, and social consciousness.


  1. Hale Woodruff, (1900-80) In 1926, Woodruff submitted 5 paintings to a Harmon Foundation competition winning second prize earning money to travel to Paris to study art and met several Black American expat artists. In 1931, he established the art program at Atlanta University (Clark-Atlanta). Woodruff’s painting in Social Realism and Regionalism (American scene painting) styles.  He focus was Georgia landscapes, cotton farmers, rural housing developments, southern lynchings. Woodruff wanted to make art accessible and show the history and achievements of minorities through his  art.


The Negro in California History: Settlement and Development, Panel 2, 1949  depicts African Americans as the labor force that contributed to modernizing the state while also showing racial oppression. l


  1. Augusta Savage (1892-1962) was the most politically influential artist of the 1930s. One of the first women to study sculpture at NYC Cooper Union, and studied African art at the New York Public Library. Savage was commissioned by the library to create a portrait bust of W.E.B. DuBois and other Harlemites. After studying in Paris, she returned and became involved in starting or working with art centers in NYC. Savage was also instrumental in aiding several Black artists enroll enroll in the WPA.


Savage was offered a commission by organizers of the New York World’s Fair to create The Harp, a sculpture based on the famous James Weldon Johnson poem. It was displayed in the Contemporary Arts Pavilion. The sculpture was demolished after the fair as Savage did not have the money to store the sculpture.


The Harp (Lift Every Voice and Sing), 1899


  1. Charles White (1918-1979) – Studied at Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and worked for the WPA as a muralist in 1939. White travel to Mexico with wife and fellow artist, Elizabeth Catlett, to meet Mexican muralists creating Social Realism works. Was part of the WPA-FAP funded South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) in Chicago which suppported fledgling Black artists and provided exhibit space.


There Were No Crops That Year, graphite drawing, 1940


  1. Dox Thrash (1893-1965) Born in rural Georgia, Thrash made his way to Chicago during the Great Depression. In 1914, he enrolled at the SAIS (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), and eventually moved to Philadelphia working at a print shop as a graphic artist. Thrash studied print media illustration and painting and mastered a variety of printmaking techniques.  In 1937, Thrash took a position at the Philadelphia FIne Prints Workshop making prints for schools, libraries, and other public venues. He developed a carborundum mezzotint technique that gave the effect of a charcoal drawing which he felt captured the representation of black skin.


Grinding, carborundum mezzotint, c.1940