By Goode, Stephen
Insight on the News , Vol. 19, No. 1
It was good work, and they were pleased to get it given the hard times. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, nearly 1,000 out-of-work American artists found employment making images in watercolor of the nation's cultural heritage. They copied quilts, weather vanes, signs that hung in front of inns, children's toys, pottery, carousel animals and much else--almost anything that had been made between the country's settlement and 1900, and which seemed a piece of vintage Americana worth saving for posterity as an image before the item got lost or fell apart.
Their project came under the name "The Index of American Design" and was part of the Federal Art Project (FAP), itself a unit of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, one of many new federal agencies brought into being by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deal with the economic crisis the nation faced and to put Americans to work.
The project's purpose was simple and admirably straightforward: "To record material of historical significance which has not heretofore been studied and which, for one reason or another, stands in danger of being lost," according to the Index of American Design Manual, the agency's handbook. The 1,000 artists who worked on the watercolor illustrations that now make up the Index made these splendid images at various times between 1935 and early 1942, when the project came to an end with the United States' entry into World War II.
But what a legacy of pure Americana they left us! Altogether, the Index artists created more than 18,200 watercolors of objects from 34 states. Since 1943, these paintings have been in the care of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where they're available for artists, scholars and others to examine daily. There also have been national tours of selected watercolors from the collection and, from time to time, exhibitions of the work at the National Gallery itself.
Now visitors to the National Gallery can view a new exhibition of nearly 90 of these splendid watercolors along with 35 of the objects they portray, located through the painstaking detective work of exhibition curator Virginia Tuttle Clayton. In a talk to art journalists at the exhibitions press opening, Clayton, the National Gallery's associate curator of old-master prints, lamented not finding each of the objects for which she searched.
A child's doll dated from 1755-65 that was painted by Index artist Molly Bodenstein in 1938, for example, seems to have disappeared. Dressed in a red calico outfit with a lace scarf, the doll had been part of a collection of "authentic American dolls" owned by Annie Ruth Cole of Petersburg, Va.
But Clayton did locate many fine items, not the least of which is an 1835 weather vane that originally sat atop a slaughterhouse in Fairhaven, Mass. The handsomely rendered device, now at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, is a painted wood sculpture of a farmer taking a pig to the butcher. Both man and animal walk astride the dull side and handle of the blade that soon will be used to turn the pig into bacon and chops--proof, if proof were needed, that grim wit has a long American pedigree.
Why create an index of American design? Its purpose partly was to give destitute artists a means of keeping body and soul together during difficult times. But Clayton sees a deeper and far more significant aim than merely creating busywork for craftsman. She calls this deeper aim "cultural nationalism."
In the 1930s many American artists and critics looked upon the United States as devoid of an artistic heritage upon which its contemporary artists could build, Clayton maintains. They believed that American painters, sculptors and designers had to turn to Europe or elsewhere to gather ideas and learn serious artistic style.
The main purpose of the Index was to prove this negativism wrong and show there was nothing lacking in the country's artistic past, Clayton avers. …