The Great Depression – Art in Troubled Times


Note to Parents/Teachers

The Works Program Act, passed by Congress in 1935, was established to help create jobs.  Among its many programs was one aimed at helping employ artists – Actors, Writers, Painters and others – in cultural fields.  Today we have thousands of paintings, historical records, and other documents representative of the Great Depression. 


Lesson Goals

1.    Show that in times of trouble culture flourishes.

2.    Gain an understanding of three American painters that specialized in their own regions.

3.    Encourage students to think of arts as representative of history.


   American Gothic


Thomas Hart Benton: Threshing Wheat Threshing Wheat



 Taos Pueblo


The Great Depression was a time of great hardship throughout the United States and the World.  It seems that in times of great stress and hardship culture flourishes.  This was true of American Artists in the 1930’s.  Three American painters that highlighted American art in the Depression era were Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Georgia O’Keefe.  Their works differed greatly but all were uniquely American.

American Gothic by Grant Wood is sometimes considered the most noteworthy piece of American art from the 1930’s.  This painting is well known to most Americans today because it has often been imitated or parodied.  Grant Wood, a native of Iowa, specialized in paintings from that state.  Once his painting American Gothic became famous it encouraged other artists to specialize, creating paintings from their states.  This specialization – unique to American painters at that time – is called Regionalism.   The title American Gothic might seem misleading, but the building behind the couple in the picture is painted in the European style: the upper window has the medieval pointed Gothic Arch.  The two ‘farmers’ in the picture seem very stiff and unfriendly; this style is also European and was influenced by Grant Wood’s study of the Northern Renaissance painters in Europe.

Another Regional Artist from this time is Thomas Hart Benton who specialized in Midwest scenes.  He was a native of Missouri but his paintings are of Kansas, Nebraska, and, of course, Missouri.   His characters seem like cartoon characters and many are painted in scenes from pioneer days.  The rich culture of the Midwest is shown in his artwork.  Many of his works are mural size and were commissioned by state and local governments.  Threshing Wheat is a typical example of his work from the 1930’s. 

Another artist from the Depression Era is Georgia O’Keefe.  Her style and work are well known by many Americans today.  Her region was the southwest U.S., mainly New Mexico.  Her work has both realistic and abstract characteristics.  Many people are familiar with her flowers, but she also painted rural southern scenes.  Her interest in the people of New Mexico and their rich culture is evidenced in her work. One example from this era is Taos Pueblo. 

Dozens of other painters produced works in the Great Depression.  The Federal Art Project Program was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help artists.  The Program hired artists to paint, draw, or create works of art to be displayed in public buildings.  Most of the work represented the Artists’ region or history of the United States. 


(Grant Wood- Art Institute of Chicago)

(Home used – Grant Wood)

Thomas Hart Benton

University of Nebraska - Art

Art History of Missouri

(Office of Academic Affairs Indiana)

Georgia O’Keefe Biography

Georgia O’Keefe

History of the US, The Great Depression




Prior to reading this article, the students should look up the following words.  Parents/teachers can help younger students with definitions.




1)   imitate

2)   parody

3)   specialized

4)   medieval

5)   Renaissance

6)   Gothic

7)   pioneer

8)   mural

9)   commissioned

10)                   abstract


After reading “Art in Troubled Times” discuss the following


1.    Imagine that you are a painter, what type of paintings would you paint of your hometown? Of your state?  Think carefully and make of list of important details that must be included.


2.    The Federal Government helped artists buy hiring them to do work, what other types of work could they do besides paintings?  Make a list of other types of art work. 


3.    Using the library or Internet make of list of painters from different areas of the US.  List their most famous works. 



Advanced Questions 


4.    Find three or four paintings by each of the artists in this paper and study them carefully.  Determine how you will recognize each artist again.


5.    Draw or sketch a regional picture for your area.  After you finish determine what makes it unique to your region.


6.    American Gothic is often parodied.  Find some examples and determine why it is so easy to copy.  Research this painting, you will be surprised to find out who the models are that posed for this painting. 



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