A m e r i c a n- G r a p h i c- A r t ,- 1 9 0 0 - 1 9 5 0


The artists who lived through the first half of the twentieth century faced a tumultuous period in American history, enduring the devastating trials of two world wars, and the Great Depression. American art of this era was, for several decades, considered by many to be dull and depressing; the works of American printmakers, in particular, were overlooked, neglected, and even destroyed. Today, from the vantage of the freshly-minted 21st century, we are able to view these works with renewed appreciation and understanding. Not only do they faithfully document the styles and artistic advances of a critical period in our country's history, but they stand as a reflection of our country's character and creative energy.

At the heart of these works is not despair but hope. Hope in the basic values of the agrarian life. Hope in the future and the progress of man as symbolized by the urban landscape with its skyscrapers and bridges. Hope in the working man as the true champion of American life. Hope that in a modernist exploration, an inner connection will resonate. And hope in the belief that 'beauty is truth'—that in the representation of a harsh reality, human compassion will triumph and that the democratic system will allow an audience and an appropriate response to an injustice revealed.

In the early years of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recognized the desperate plight of the fine artist along with that of the country's other unemployed workers, providing jobs for painters, muralists, photographers, and sculptors, as well as graphic artists (printmakers). These New Deal initiatives, The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP, 1933-34), and the Federal Art Project (FAP, 1935-43), produced the first major body of public American art. With this government-sponsored support, American graphic art came of age. It gave artists the freedom to create in a relatively uninhibited structure, free of the fear of economic insecurity or undue concern for how a work might be received. The sharing of workshop facilities and in some areas weekly meetings and public exhibitions generated a sense of comradeship and fostered a cross-fertilization of ideas and a heightening of awareness and purpose. The vast outpouring of creativity that resulted was unprecedented in the country's history. At the close of the WPA in 1943 more than 750,000 prints produced in the program were allocated to a multitude of public institutions.

The graphic artists of this period, even the most accomplished, persevered with little promise of material reward or public recognition. They worked for the love of their art. Many were first or second-generation immigrants, bringing with them the heritage of diverse cultures and modes of expression, as well as the tradition of technical expertise and precision. Often they had exposure to, and training in, the most progressive schools of European modernism. America offered them the promise of freedom of expression in a culture stripped of old customs and hierarchies, and they guarded that freedom vigilantly.

This confluence of events – the World Wars, the Great Depression, the WPA – with a culture of singularly devoted artists, produced the qualities which have come to distinguish American printmaking of the first half of the 20th century: its great diversity of creative expression, its integrity of purpose, and its emotional directness.

As we look at our past through these images, they strike a resonant chord. In them, we recognize the truth that history repeats itself, or rather that man, despite his technological advances, remains essentially unchanged; the issues of exploitation, disenfranchisement, and war, remain with us today. And the belief that the brotherhood of humanity will ultimately flourish in peace and prosperity is still the hope that sustains us.

– Keith Sheridan