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Arts and Letters, Visual Arts

Ben Shahn, Thomas Eakins, Federal Art Project, Andrew Wyeth, Jacob Lawrence

The visual arts have traditionally included forms of expression that appeal to the eyes through painted surfaces, and to the sense of space through carved or molded materials. In the 19th century, photographs were added to the paintings, drawings, and sculpture that make up the visual arts. The visual arts were further augmented in the 20th century by the addition of other materials, such as found objects. These changes were accompanied by a profound alteration in tastes, as earlier emphasis on realistic representation of people, objects, and landscapes made way for a greater range of imaginative forms.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American art was considered inferior to European art. Despite noted American painters such as Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and John Marin, American visual arts barely had an international presence.

American art began to flourish during the Great Depression of the 1930s as New Deal government programs provided support to artists along with other sectors of the population. Artists connected with each other and developed a sense of common purpose through programs of the Public Works Administration, such as the Federal Art Project, as well as programs sponsored by the Treasury Department. Most of the art of the period, including painting, photography, and mural work, focused on the plight of the American people during the depression, and most artists painted real people in difficult circumstances. Artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Ben Shahn expressed the suffering of ordinary people through their representations of struggling farmers and workers. While artists such as Benton and Grant Wood focused on rural life, many painters of the 1930s and 1940s depicted the multicultural life of the American city. Jacob Lawrence, for example, re-created the history and lives of African Americans. Other artists, such as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, tried to use human figures to describe emotional states such as loneliness and despair.

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