Local gallery illustrates unique perspective on Depression era

Located at the top of Murray Hill, Livingston Arts’ New Deal Gallery acts as a time capsule to the 1930s that allows viewers to revisit the Great Depression. Every inch is a testament to a time past; filled not only with colorful oil paintings but also relics of 1930s culture. When you first walk into the gallery, you are greeted by a cozy sitting room, complete with a sofa, record player and copy of Emily Post’s popular book Etiquette. On display this season is the “Changing Landscape: Architecture in American Scene Painting in the 1930s” exhibit. The exhibit is compiled of just a handful of the gallery’s 200 works from the Great Depression era.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration commissioned all of the works in the exhibit. WPA was a program that was devised as a part of FDR’s New Deal, which was meant to lower the unemployment rate in America and to help to counteract the effects of the Great Depression.

The goal of the “Changing Landscape” exhibit is not only to showcase how 1930s American scene painters “depicted their surroundings, including the architecture in landscapes,” but also to show the viewer the variety of “technique, style and the depiction of architecture within a changing landscape” in paintings that were all created in the same time period.

And the works do indeed represent vastly different places, seasons and activities. From Claude A. Patterson’s 1937 “Midsummer Day”—with its primarily blue-green pallet and yellow houses that stand out—to R. Emmett Owen’s 1937 autumnal “Old Mile Worthington,” the subject of these paintings are nature scenes and views of small river front towns.

The overall vibe of the gallery is peaceful and nostalgic as you walk through the three rooms, glimpse at paintings in their original wooden frames and read about artists whose day is long past, yet still preserved as a critical part of American history.

Although the paintings that are the focus of the New Deal Gallery were created during the Great Depression—which was no doubt one of the most difficult times that Americans have experienced—the paintings on the walls of the gallery do not depict hardship. Instead, they evoke a sense of quiet serenity and progress. For example, William Shulgold’s 1936 “New Jersey Farm” depicts a well-tended and thriving farm and Ray Kadowaki’s 1936 “Country Construction” shows men diligently building a house in the woods.

FDR’s intentions for the New Deal and WPA are well-achieved in the New Deal Gallery. The works and historical artifacts in the gallery accurately explain to modern audiences what daily life in 1930s America was like—despite the struggle over the Great Depression—and how the New Deal was instrumental in getting people back on their feet.

Without the help of the New Deal, not only would the artists featured in the gallery not have had the opportunity to keep painting, but we also would not have the chance to see 1930s America documented so beautifully.