Post Office Art

This mural by Xavier Gonzales was commissioned as part of the Treasury Department's Section commissions during the Great Depression. The mural remains on display in the Covington Post Office. Learn more »

During the Depression, government-sponsored artists completed twenty-five art works for post offices throughout Louisiana: two walnut carvings, twenty-two murals, and one fresco. Though sometimes associated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), another government agency that administered art programs, most of the artwork placed in federal buildings during the Depression was funded by the U.S. Treasury Department. Prompted at least in part by a letter from his friend Francis Biddle, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped that government-sponsored art would uplift the spirit of the American people while providing employment for the country’s artists. Such art, Biddle urged Roosevelt, would express “in living monuments the social ideals you are struggling to achieve.”

 

U.S. Treasury Art Programs

Two Treasury Department programs, in particular, sponsored most of this art: the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) and the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts (commonly referred to as “the Section”). In general, TRAP focused on acquiring art for existing federal buildings, while the Section procured art for new federal buildings. Between 1935 and 1938, TRAP, “a smaller moon in the Section’s orbit,” was administered by Olin Dows, who awarded commissions based on perceived talent rather than demonstrated financial need.

In operation between 1934 and 1943, the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture was directed by Edward Bruce and reflected the aesthetic paternalism of its leader. Bruce insisted that by bringing fine art to the more remote corners of America, the agency would allay fears, renew faith in democracy, and improve the quality of everyday life. From his own experience as a recovering heart patient, he believed deeply in the calming influence of art. At the same time, he insisted that art—properly rendered—could also inspire. By matching isolated communities with skilled artists, Bruce hoped to provide Depression-wracked citizens with mural designs emphasizing hope and assurance.

Ideally, Bruce’s artists would work in the communities where the art was to be displayed. Because artists were concentrated in larger metropolitan centers, however, the Section typically commissioned painters and sculptors who worked from afar. Often, artists contacted local authorities, usually the postmaster or local librarian, solicited suggestions, and then developed a design closely scrutinized by Bruce’s staff. These were to be representational works, Section officials insisted, typically within the American Scene style—an umbrella term often applied to the naturalist renderings of American spaces and the subjects popular in the early twentieth century but especially in vogue during the 1930s. This art was intended to emphasize harmony and hope, progress and achievement. Section art thus represented a triangular negotiation among local interests, working artists, and federal supervisors, a collaboration, sometimes volatile, that nevertheless produced a body of work deeply engaged with the historic moment of its creation.

 

Treasury Art Projects in Louisiana

Treasury department commissions in Louisiana reflected the turbulence of state and nation alike during the 1930s. TRAP funded the first project, Xavier Gonzalez’s Strawberry Farming, for the Hammond post office, while the Section supervised the rest. Nearly all of the art works address the struggle, especially acute in the Pelican State, to reconcile the conflicting demands of a rapidly modernizing society. Cotton Time, for example, Allison B. Curry’s design for the post office in Arcadia, hoped to harmonize an agricultural past with an industrial future. In Curry’s composition, an ox-drawn cart pulls a cotton-laden wagon toward the market. But when Section officials requested that Curry add “a piece of architecture that has a note of reassurance” to his horizon, he chose an oil derrick, with the obvious implications.

Other compositions echo this theme. The evolution of Conrad Albrizio’s design for the DeRidder post office, for example, affirms the wisdom of its citizens’ recent decision to abandon single-crop agriculture for the modern practice of diversified farming. Gonzalez’s Strawberry Farming traces the crop’s entire cycle from field cultivation to harvest, inspection, packaging, and railroad shipment, presumably to anywhere in America. Two years after he completed this mural, the Section commissioned Gonzalez to do a second Louisiana design, Tung Oil Industry, for the post office in Covington. A quintessential New Deal parable, painted in a kind of representational cubism, Gonzales’s design was intended to be read from left to right. Along the left margin, Gonzalez depicted the threat of rampant cross-cutting, an outmoded manner of timber harvest, equally threatening to man and nature. Subsequent figures then introduce the modern principles of scientific management and reforestation, whose benefits take the form of teeming harvests and a thriving community.

Perhaps no design captured more clearly the artistic modernization of the Louisiana landscape than Stuart Purser’s A Southern Pattern, completed for the post office in Ferriday. Purser, who taught art at Louisiana College in Pineville, never doubted that his subject would be the cotton culture, endemic to the region’s way of life. Yet his design developed in very suggestive ways. Having visited Panola Plantation, near Ferriday, Purser’s original sketch depicted the central power relationship of race and labor in cotton production. On payday, black field hands surround a white foreman who stands in a wagon, elevated above them, distributing wages. But while in Ferriday, Purser visited a newly built “modern four-stand cotton gin.” He became so interested in its design potential that he scrapped the original sketch to study the new operation. As a result, A Southern Pattern reflects the increasing mechanization of regional agriculture, a trend with very suggestive social implications. The finished design replaces the overt racial hierarchy of the original sketch. The white foreman no longer commands men; instead, he tends machines, surrounded by black laborers who occupy the same horizontal plane.

Two additional Louisiana art works hint at the region’s looming racial transformation. When he was awarded the Jeanerette commission, Florida artist Hollis Holbrook indulged the postmaster’s request for a typical antebellum scene replete with mansion, master, and slaves. But Holbrook had different ideas. His artwork focuses on the harsh conditions of the harvest season, paralleling the grinding nature of slave labor with the cane press they tend. New Orleans native Frances Negueloua also emphasized the value of black labor to southern society in the mural she painted for the Tallulah post office. Based on a published eyewitness account of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, her composition depicts two laborers—one white, the other black—working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, to avert disaster.

While these murals suggest transformation within Louisiana race relations, others attest to the state’s incorporation into a broader portrait of modern America. Numerous observers have commented on the nationalizing implications of Section murals. In their efforts to paint the “American scene,” Edward Bruce’s artists manipulated a common visual vocabulary of themes and images. Some celebrated labor and laborers, others reconciled the frontier past with a progressive future, while many extolled rational planning, scientific management, diversified farming, and communal cooperation, all central to the creation of material abundance. And though Bruce may have intended local subjects for local places, the results were far more homogenous, a trend suggested by three final Louisiana designs.

In Oakdale, New York artist Harry Lane’s Air Express abolishes locale in an all-but-antiseptic paean to the streamlined future of modern aviation. And while Arabi residents first read Alice Flynt’s design, Louisiana Pageant, as a Mardi Gras tribute, it was virtually identical to the design she had already executed for the Fairfield, Connecticut, post office and would attempt to repeat in Adele, Georgia. In an illuminating reversal, the St. Martinsville postmaster initiated the mural project for his newly renovated structure by furnishing Bruce’s office with a precise set of local desires. Yet, suggestively, Evangeline by New York artist Minetta Good can be read one of two ways. Some may see her work as a cherished symbol of cultural resistance against modern trends. Others, however, see evidence of a savvy marketing plan to build the region’s burgeoning tourist trade.

Though Section art may not have achieved its stated ideals, its legacy remains visible across Louisiana, a relic of this remarkable moment in state and national history. Evangeline may have vanished from her place in St. Martinsville, but in other communities such as DeRidder and Abbeville, Arcadia, Bogalusa, and Arabi, the collective portrait of thirties Louisiana hides in plain sight, often on the very walls where it has hung for seventy years and more. For a complete list of Section commissions in the state and those still extant, see the Appendix in Democratic Vistas.

Cite This Entry

Chicago Manual of Style

Megraw, Richard. "Post Office Art." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published February 2, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/525/.

MLA Style

Megraw, Richard. "Post Office Art." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2 Feb 2011. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.

Suggested Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978,

Hahn, Steven. The Roots of Southern Populism: Southern Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hair, William I. Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics, 1877–1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Shugg, Roger. The Origins of the Class Struggle in Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.


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