New Deal murals and the myth of the Renaissance
in Republics and empires
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The art projects of the New Deal have been investigated from a variety of perspectives, but comparatively little attention has been reserved for the myth of the Italian Renaissance within this discourse. This chapter focuses upon the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, which was committed to commissioning decorations of the highest quality for new federal buildings, and investigates the critical appropriation of the Italian cultural past as a ‘usable past’ – to exploit Van Wyck Brooks’s noted expression – in the service of a burgeoning American modern art. Although seeming paradoxical for a programme so targeted at reinforcing American values, the imagery of the Italian Renaissance can be read as a watermark between the lines of the Section’s discursive rhetoric and painterly practice. In short, these public projects were made to resonate with the social role of art in Italian medieval communes, and with the reintegration of artists into a national social network. This admiration for Italian art, however, only rarely gave way to blatant imitation, and the range of sources of inspiration encompassed the Renaissance in its wider chronological scope, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. This chapter focuses upon the influence of three key players in the federal programme: Edward Bruce, chief of the Section; Forbes Watson, adviser to the federal programme; and George Biddle, a painter who helped inspire the programme and was one of its first participants, all of whom spent time in Italy.

Republics and empires

Italian and American art in transnational perspective, 1840–1970

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