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American Art and Architecture | Arts and Humanities | History | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology


Annette Atkins, History; David Paul Lange, Art


Since their creation in the Great Depression, over 70 murals have decorated the walls of post offices, schools, hospitals and town halls across Minnesota. As part of Roosevelt's New Deal, these federally sponsored mural programs aimed to provide work relief for struggling artists and to create artworks for the people. These Minnesota murals, which show images of people working in local industries and on rural farms and living in prosperous communities and in historical settings, share deep uniting themes in the ideas and scenes they portray. Through my research, I have discovered that they show an idealized vision of life. This idealization is particularly evident in the treatment of time - an idealized past and a generically positive present, community - an emphasized sense of community spirit but a narrow definition of the community population itself, and work - a narrow by determined definition of work. These expressions shape what is ideal, good and normal within the visual society they represent, potentially creating a means for citizens to find motivation, comfort or a new definition of reality within the visual imagery they encountered every day.

Through an iconographic content analysis of New Deal murals in Minnesota and an exploration of existing secondary research, this study will investigate what these murals portrayed to the American and, more specifically, the Minnesotan people. It will discuss these murals in terms of the artistic images they reflect of real life, society, and regional history in Minnesota during those Great Depression times, as well as of the significant societal attitudes toward work and community. In addition, this discussion will show how those images and their content also demonstrate the differences in mission, objectives and structure between the two major New Deal art programs, the Treasury Section and the WPA/FAP. This project will attempt to contextualize the murals’ reflection within the historical and art historical worlds at that time. By probing these subject matter, style, category, and attitude aspects in mural content, this study hopes to bring about a better understanding of these murals’ expression of the American and Minnesotan scene, both in the WPA/FAP and Section murals. As this paper will go on to discuss, these murals are shaped in their subject matter and style by both the popular ideals, atmosphere, and controversial issues of the Depression era, as well as significantly by the different goals and organization of the distinct New Deal arts programs. These shaping factors are noticeable in the location, style, and subject matter of the murals and particularly in the underlying themes of work, community, and time period.


This Thesis in Art History won the 2004 Research Bibliography Award given by Clemens and Alcuin Libraries.

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Author's statement of research process