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WPA Prints

1. History

By the spring of 1935 many American artists were destitute. The government-funded Federal Art Project of the WPA (WPA/FAP), part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal,  hired thousands of artists to create paintings, murals, sculptures, and prints intended for all Americans to see and enjoy. Some of the twentieth century’s greatest artists were employed under the WPA/FAP, such as Jackson Pollock, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Anton Refregier, and Jacob Lawrence. The graphic arts were hit especially hard during the economic downturn of the Great Depression. When in the nineteenth century Americans had been avid consumers of mass produced lithographs by artists like Thomas Moran and James Ives, by 1935, there was practically no market for prints.

With the establishment of the Graphic Arts division in the WPA/FAP, new hope and life was brought to the artists and therefore the medium of printmaking as well. The Program provided not only a weekly paycheck ($24 per week) that many artists desperately needed to survive, but also expensive supplies, equipment and facilities which allowed artists to experiment.  Costly methods like color lithography that were being used in Europe could now be used. Silkscreen was also used for the first time as a creative print medium, contributing to the later experimental printing methods of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.

While the Program did provide economic relief and freedom to experiment with new styles and subjects that would have otherwise been unpopular in the art market, the government was the commissioner of all work under the WPA/FAP. Therefore, specific criteria were established that all artists had to follow. Themes of the work were meant to be patriotic in an effort to rally dispirited Americans. Artists had to get sketches or proofs of final work approved and in general, most were given the ability to choose themes that seemed real and significant to the American experience.

Work and worker themes are common subjects of American prints from the period as well as images of the machines from the factory industrial age. Holger Cahill, the Project’s national director said that it might be possible to visually read the history of the period of the Depression from the prints created by WPA/FAP artists.  Because the history of the Depression is so closely linked with the history of labor in America, this statement seems quite true. The works that have survived leave a visual record of how the Depression affected individuals of the working class.

When the program ended in 1943, little attempts by the United States government were made to catalog, research or preserve the thousands of works that were made by artists. In 1943 the government auctioned off works not individually, but by the pound. Recent attempts by the Government Services Agency (GSA) are initiating efforts to identify and catalog WPA art. The GSA regards these works, whether in private or public collections as Government property.


Francey, M. (2008). American printmakers and the federal art project. Retrieved March 13, 2013.                 http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa192.htm

Wolf, J. (N.d). Federal art project of the works progress administration WPA: Years: 1934-1943. Retrieved February 7, 2013. http://www.theartstory.org/org-wpa.htm

2. Writing Exercises

Description- One Word

Compare the theme and mood for each WPA print. What visual clues communicate the themes and unique feelings of each? Describe these visual clues with one word.

Expository- Headline News

What is the story in each work? What is happening? Write a headline for a news story (newspaper, magazine, blog, etc) that captures the reader’s attention. Your headline must be supported with visual evidence from each work.

Read each headline and ask other students to guess which work inspired it.

Expository- Contextual Analysis

Discuss as a class how does each work reflect the social and economic times in which it was made? How does it reflect the time and place in which the artist made the work? What visual evidence do you see that reflects the context in which the work was made? Is there a common theme between all three prints? How does each artist communicate this theme?

Write a short essay explaining how each work reflects the context of the period. Support your ideas with visual evidence from each work.

Poetry- Ode Poem

An ode generally celebrates a person or a thing. Look closely at the three WPA prints, what one theme or idea do they all have in common? Write an ode about that idea celebrating its significance and explaining why it is worthy of such admiration.

3. Teacher Resources

Article describing the United States Government’s recent attempts to relocate lost, stolen or non-legal transfers of work produced under the WPA/FAP.


The Government Services Administration’s official website for Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art Recovery.


The Smithsonian’s photographic collection on the Federal Art Project (1935-1942).