Resilience during the Great Depression

Millard Sheets shows community and resilience during the Great Depression.

Millard Sheets, Tenement Flats, 1933-34, oil on canvas, 102.1 x 127.6 cm (Smithsonian American Art Museum). A conversation with Dr. Virginia Mecklenburg, Chief Curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Sheets, Tenement Flats

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Key points

  • Like other government programs created to provide jobs during the Great Depression, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was started in December 1933 to employ artists like Millard Sheets. After only five months, an exhibition at the Corcoran revealed the program’s success and eventually other federal programs were added to support the arts.
  • Millard Sheets depicts the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles, including both the formerly-grand mansions and new apartment buildings that housed a crowded community. While Sheets documents their humble living conditions, his sunny painting emphasizes the communal spirit and intimate connections that sustained people during the economic crisis of the 1930s.

Go deeper

This painting at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Selected paintings from the 1934 Corcoran exhibition

See historical images of Bunker Hill

View the online exhibition “America’s Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal”

See murals at the Department of the Interior including Sheets’s 1948 series The Negro’s Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of America

More to think about

What details did Sheets include in Tenement Flats to describe the lives of the people living there?  Consider the condition of the buildings, the figures’ clothing, and activities. How do you think his treatment of these details reinforce the positive themes of the painting?  How could the image be painted to tell a much bleaker story?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.