Last winter the Museum was contacted by a member of the staff at the Fine Arts Program of the U.S. General Services Administration, otherwise known as the GSA. The program had just taken repossession of an oil painting by J. Kelly Fitzpatrick (1888–1953) and, knowing the MMFA has a large holding of this Alabama native’s work, they asked if we might be interested in receiving this painting to exhibit on long-term loan.
Most Americans associate the Federal government’s art holdings with the many and varied collections of the National Gallery of Art or the system of Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. However, there’s also a large collection of art owned by the U.S. government that is housed outside of museums, and indeed outside of Washington. This collection is administered by the Art in Architecture and Fine Arts offices of the GSA., and consists of all types of art—everything from wall murals, to public sculpture, to printed materials. It can be found in government-owned buildings all over the United States. A sizeable portion of this collection dates from the era of the New Deal in the 1930s, and was created under the auspices of the Federal relief programs that assisted Americans during the Great Depression. (Above: Negro Store, 1936, oil on canvas, Loan from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration Treasury Relief Art Project, 1935-1938 Loan from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services AdministrationTreasury Relief Art Project, 1935-1938)
Kelly Fitzpatrick was one of some 10,000 artists who were out of work and seeking assistance when Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated the New Deal programs in 1933. Fitzpatrick eventually worked for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), and later for both of the Treasury Department-based programs—the Treasury Section of Paintings and Sculpture (popularly known as “the Section”), and the Treasury Relief Art Project, called TRAP. For the Section program, he created post office murals in Ozark and in Phenix City. Negro Store was painted for the TRAP program, and is an outstanding example of Fitzpatrick’s work at its best.
The artists painting for the Federal relief programs were generally directed to paint scenes depicting events and places in their locality. For Fitzpatrick, this meant choosing subjects that were familiar to him from his life in Wetumpka, then an agricultural center just outside of Montgomery, Alabama. Negro Store depicts a typical dusty street in small town Alabama. It is an outstanding Southern example of the American painting style known as Regionalism, conveying the sense of the every day lives and activities of Americans through subjects that implied activity tied to specific places or events. In this composition the figures in their work-a-day clothes lingering in the doorway of the store, protected from the fierce midday sun by a metal awning, are contrasted with the more formally dressed passersby who represent a contemporary society on the move. Fitzpatrick was one of the best of the painters in this style in the Southeast, and his works are generally characterized by brilliant sunlight, making the intense, saturated colors glow against a sun-washed landscape of trees and clouds. The work was painted with strong, vigorous strokes of thick paint that add a textural dimension to the surface and model the forms.
It was the New Deal programs that allowed artists to continue to pursue their profession in years of the Great Depression, producing art that was accessible to their local communities in museums, libraries, community centers, and post offices.
The MMFA is grateful that the Fine Arts Program of GSA elected to offer us this beautiful and typical work by the artist to exhibit alongside our outstanding collection of his works, many of which also date from the 1930s and the years of Fitzpatrick’s New Deal employment. Please stop by the Museum one of these hot summer days and enjoy this 1936 version of a summer scene in central Alabama, now on view in the Museum Foyer.
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, Curator of Art