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Roosevelt, Eleanor, her copy) Watson, Forbes.

American Painting Today.

Book

Eleanor Roosevelt's Copy
[Roosevelt, Eleanor]. American Painting Today. With an essay by Forbes Watson. Washington, D.C.: The American Federation of Arts, 1939.
4to.; red cloth, stamped in gilt; spine rubbed. In a specially made cloth slipcase.
First edition of this lavishly illustrated publication, with 249 full and half-page monochrome reproductions and ten full color images of easel and mural paintings in all mediums, nearly all created during the 1930s, by 184 living American painters. Watson, who contributes a three-part introductory essay, notes, "It has been impossible, of course, to include the work of every competent American painter in this volume; some of the omissions, necessary for several reasons, are distressing to us. However, we feel that the selections as a whole indicate the variety and the forward direction of pictorial expression in the United States."
A presentation copy, inscribed: To Mrs. Roosevelt, Friend of the American Artist, from Forbes Watson, Washington D.C. December 25, 1940. With Roosevelt's pencil notes on the front endpaper, "Jonas Lie p 125" and "Mitchell Jamieson 35." Provenance: Eleanor's copy, by descent to her son John, thence to his wife Irene Roosevelt Aitken, from whom it was acquired.
Watson (1880-1960) was an art critic for the New York Evening Post and the New York World and during the 1920s edited what was arguably the liveliest and most influential art magazine of the decade, The Arts. He championed Progressive Era artists of the Ash Can and social realist schools, and during the New Deal he worked with Edward Bruce in the Section of Fine Arts in the Treasury Department, which was responsible for commissioning art for public buildings.
Watson writes that "When the United States Government placed artists from every region of the country … on the government payroll, a revolution in the relationship of the artist to his fellow citizens and in the relationship of the public to the artist was … unwittingly begun." The commissioning of works by the government for display in public spaces broke down the "precious" notion of art as something made by and for a small, insulated community of aesthetes. The Public Works of Art Project, along with the Section of Fine Arts, and, most famously, the WPA, brought fine art to the masses, and broadened artists' conceptions of who their audience might be. The artificial distinction between highbrow and lowbrow was, if not completely erased, at least blurred.
Public funding, contrary to fears, neither deadened art into some bland, officially acceptable style, nor dried up the private art market. On the contrary: Watson notes that artists "living on government salaries" were still executing bold work that was often "not flattering to the source of their income." There was plenty of mediocre New Deal art, to be sure, but the presence of serious critics and collectors like Forbes, George Biddle, and Roger Cahill in the administration's art agencies insured that high artistic standards were still being observed. And many artists were able to parlay notoriety gained from post office murals and public statuary into profitable exhibitions in private galleries. Watson thought the federal presence had a maturing effect as well: "In the first enthusiasm of five years ago there were many sociological paintings which indicated on the part of the artist more courage than equipment." Government money allowed artists greater time to perfect their craft, and to experiment with new forms and subjects.
That diversity is amply illustrated in this beautifully produced book, featuring the work of an impressive roster of artists: Georgia O'Keeffe with her Jack in the Pulpit, Number 8, and Oak Leaves Pink and Gray; Paul Cadmus's famous Sailors and Floozies; John Sloan's Sixth Avenue Elevated; Edward Hopper's visions of urban isolatos; Grant Woods's American Gothic and Daughters of the American Revolution (with an errata slip bound in, advising the reader that the latter work is incorrectly credited to the Whitney Museum, and belongs, instead, to Edward G. Robinson). There are two of Thomas Hart Benton's lesser-known pieces, Shallow Creek and Louisiana Rice Fields, and dozens of works by his many imitators. Overall Watson provides, through his selections, a fascinating collection representative of the variety and vitality of American art in the New Deal era.
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