The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Anton Refregier

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Anton Refregier (American, 1905-1979)

Refregier, Anton, Broken Life, 1942
Gift of C. Leonard Pfeiffer
Oil on board, 29 3/4″” x 21 1/2″

1. Biography

Anton Refregier was born in Moscow and moved with his family to Paris at age fourteen and eventually emigrated to the United States in 1920. He earned a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, and upon graduation moved to New York City in 1925 finding work for interior decorators. Working for the WPA/FPA from 1935-1940, provided Refregier, like other artists during the Great Depression, constant commissions and an hourly wage.

His most famous work was the WPA mural of the “History of San Francisco” at the Rincon Post Office in San Francisco. The mural was commissioned in 1941, but was halted due to the onset of WWII and was not resumed until 1946 and completed in 1948. Refregier broke from WPA tradition of painting images of hard work ending economic hardships, and instead choose to include in his mural the more controversial events from California history, such as anti-Chinese riots and the water front strike of 1934. The work became the most controversial of all the WPA art projects, sparking national debate but the work has since been protected as a National Historical Place.

Broken Life was painted in 1942, during Refregier’s hiatus on the Rincon mural. In a letter from the artist’s wife, she states that the title was originally Grief and was painted as a result of Refregier’s “response to the bombing of London during the war”. Broken Life, like the Rincon mural and its inclusion of the less than nostalgic moments in California’s history, demonstrates the artist’s inspiration in tragic events.


O’Connor, F.V. (Ed.). ( 1973).  WPA: Art for the millions. Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society Ltd.

S.  Refregier, letter to museum, October, 19, 1981.

2. History

During the thirties, America struggled with economic security, while Europe dealt with violent political upheaval. This crisis led to World War II which the United States actively entered after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. With a growing sense that democracy was threatened on a global scale, many American artists looked toward America’s roots as a defense of American values.

After the start of WWII, songwriters like Woody Guthrie set aside the more social-political protest songs to compose “This Land is Your Land”. Movie makers like Frank Capra filmed idealized visions of America’s  past and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II loaded their 1943 musical Oklahoma with themes of the American rural past and innocence.

Fearful that America’s aversion to war would weaken its resolve and readiness to defend democracy, the Regionalist painter Grant Wood produced posters for Bundles for Britain, a relief agency that sent American medical supplies to England. Norman Rockwell ‘s  popular four painting series, Four Freedoms was created to run on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post intended to promote patriotism. These four essential human rights were devised from Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address.  Roosevelt’s “Freedom from Want”, for example, was visually communicated with a nostalgic scene of an American family eating a holiday meal.

Anton Refregier’s painting Broken Life can be juxtaposed against this cultural context of visual works being created to inspire patriotism during the time of war. Broken Life is not an idealized scene of Americana, nor is it an emotional propagandistic call to fight against Facism. Refregier captures the reality, rather than the idealized, experiences of war. Two individuals cling to each other out of grief after the London Blitz, when the city was bombed by Germany for 57 consecutive nights. The work evokes contemplation for the human cost of war.


Haskell, B. (1999). The American century: Art & culture 1900-1950. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

3. Writing Exercises

Description- Free Write

Look closely at the image for five minutes, then free-write about what you see for two minutes. Reading what you wrote, circle the most important idea to you. Take another minute to look closely at the painting, then free-write about this idea for another two minutes. Stop again and take a minute to read what you wrote and look closely at the painting.  Circle the most important idea that you just wrote and free-write for two more minutes about this idea.

Share responses with other students. Compare how each of you see the image. How are your responses similar and different?

Narrative- Text to Self Connection

What personal connection can you make to this image? Take on the perspective of one of the figures in this painting. Write a response to this work beginning with the prompt, “I remember…”. Your writing can be invented (i.e. fictional), but must include details from the painting.

Read the historical context for this artwork. Does this change your perspective or point of view? Write again from the perspective of one of the figures, beginning with the same prompt. “I remember…”.

Persuasive- Interpretation

Artists use subtle elements within a work of art to convey a meaning, such as gesture, color or line. Complete a “What I See- What it Means” worksheet in order to analyze the message/s of The Broken Life. Record the denotations and connotations of the work and then share your findings with the class. Summarize the overall main ideas and meaning of the image in a short essay citing the visual evidence to support your conclusions.