During the 1930s, American artists covered the walls of public buildings all across the country with murals meant to display the nation’s history and ideals. These murals were part of a much larger wave of public art during that decade, driven largely by major programs of art patronage organized by the United States government. By participating in these programs, artists played a significant role in the New Deal, the policies established under President Franklin Roosevelt to lift the country out of the Great Depression.

The paintings, drawings, and mosaic in this gallery are preparatory studies for murals—some were eventually realized at full-scale, while others were never executed. They reveal one important dimension of Depression-era public art, namely the attempt by artists to reckon with the nature of the United States as a racially diverse nation. In their representations of blacks, whites, American Indians, and Asian immigrants, these works reflect the contentious and unsettled state of American race relations in the early twentieth century.