Post Offices Present and Preserve Work of Hundreds of New Deal Artists

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

America, perk up. While we are experiencing some of the worst of times, light can spring from gloom, if the Great Depression is any guide. For evidence, go to the post office.

As part of the New Deal, artists were hired to create paintings and sculptures for about 900 mail centers around the country, thus putting Americans back to work and goosing the economy. "The art was really designed for these village post offices," said Dallan C. Wordekemper, federal preservation officer at the U.S. Postal Service. "It defined the tastes of the citizens and the romanticism of the artist. . . . If you look at each one of these murals, you'll see a history of America."

Since the program's inception 75 years ago, only about 100 of the public works have been lost or destroyed, leaving nearly 1,100 paintings and 300 sculptures hanging above P.O. boxes and posing by stamp machines. Every state, plus the District, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, displays at least one example of the New Deal art. (For a list of cities and sites, see http://www.wpamurals.com.)

For a sample route, here are 10 works sprinkled throughout northern New Jersey, with a short background on the artist and the works that illuminated a dark America.

New Brunswick (86 Bayard St.): "Washington Retreating From New Brunswick," "Howe and Cornwallis Entering New Brunswick," "George Washington With De Witt, Geographer of the Revolutionary Army," 1939; "The Dispatch Rider," 1937.

Philadelphia-born George Biddle used a fresco style for his scenes of Washington retreating from the Jersey town and the advancing British generals Howe and Cornwallis. Washington, astride a white horse, is surrounded by other military figures, including an injured foot soldier. Across the foyer, Washington and two assistants stand over Simeon De Witt as he surveys the route from New Brunswick to Virginia.

"The Dispatch Rider," a relief sculpture of a stylized horse and rider, by Ruth Nickerson, is carved out of red stone, the same material as the door surround. It is set in a lunette shape over a side entrance.

Biddle played an instrumental role in the New Deal art program. He wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a prep school pal, in May 1933 encouraging him to use artists to decorate public buildings, a suggestion that led to the formation of the Section of Painting and Sculpture (later called the Section of Fine Arts). His works appear in the Department of Justice building in Washington and the Supreme Court building in Mexico City. Nickerson exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum and the Corcoran Gallery, and is in the permanent collection of the Newark Museum in New Jersey. The post office in Eden, N.C., also contains one of her sculptures.

Cranford (3 Miln St.): "The Battle of Cranford During the American Revolution," 1937.

Gerald Foster's trio of oil-on-canvas paintings illustrates a British foraging (really, raiding) party passing through Crane's Ford (later known as Cranford) on its return to headquarters on Staten Island. The redcoats are besieged by American soldiers on the lookout for the enemy in an apple orchard. During the 2007 restoration, conservators uncovered Foster's use of pentimento, a technique that gives the weapons a 3-D illusion and sense of movement. Also notable: The Confederates are dressed in various attire because they could not afford uniforms.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company


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