Research Resources

Teaching Materials

Prosperity, Depression and War: American Images 1920-1945


Lewis Hine, Icarus Atop the Empire State Building ca. 1922

From the end of World War II to the stock market crash of 1929 that began the great Depression, American energies were devoted primarily to domestic prosperity, national and individual. A retreat from international engagements and a resurgence of isolationism on the international front, and an increasingly anti-regulatory and pro-business policy at home made for a divisive relationship between the broad culture and the artistic and intellectual leaders. While American artists and writers found ways to leave the 'States' for the expatriate communities of Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, they also formed similar expatriate communities in the major cities of the US, notably New York City's Greenwich Village. And they retreated into more austere locales like Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, forming artists colonies that attracted not just their own, but others seeking a similar experience.

On the larger front, though, the '20s were marked by a rapid rise in mass and popular culture: magazines and illustrated journals, popular novels and the like, but most notably the movies.


Russell Lee, Hands of a Farm Woman, ca. 1936

With the onset of the Great Depression, however, expatriates lost the capital to stay away, and artists and intellectuals felt a newly urgent need to speak to, for, and with the broader culture. The election of a liberal/social democratic administration in the form of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal lent optimism to this turn back toward the center of the culture, and provided as well the promise of work, ranging from the WPA (Works Progress Administration) with its writers projects, guidebook sponsorship, and its many commissioned works of public art, to the FSA (Fram Security Administration), which sponsored a cadre of photographers to travel the nation photographing the troubles of farmers and citizens alike.


Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech from The Four Freedoms, 1943

With the onset of World War II, many of these artists and photographers turned to the face of wartime America, enthusiastically embracing a new role as providers of propaganda and wartime information. The FSA's evolution into the OWI (Office of War Administration) is a case in point; photographers, writers and artists found new work in this administration, providing war posters, war bond advertisements, photographs of wartime factory production, and the like.