In the 1930s, thousands of murals appeared in post offices, schools, and other public buildings throughout the United States. This work, Harry Sternberg’s 1938 “Chicago – Epic of a Great City,” was commissioned through the Federal Art Project (FAP), which employed artists through merit competitions rather than according to financial need. The Public Buildings Administration allotted one percent of the construction costs to the commissioning of public art in widely-used public spaces. The FAP, like Burnham and the City Beautiful planners, connected the aesthetic beauty of public spaces with public virtue.
WPA-era murals shared several stylistic and thematic elements, including heroic working-class figures in the Social Realist style, then prominent among depression-era artists,. Many also told a story of economic development, as with Sternberg’s mural. His canvas is divided into three thematic sections. The left and right sections celebrate Chicago’s industrial and agricultural strengths, respectively, each represented by strong, working-class, male figures. Flanked by the male figures is a summary of Chicago’s explosive growth. Diminutive Fort Dearborn stands in the foreground, behind which is the wooden 19th century city consumed by the flames of 1871, out of which emerges a sleek, modern metropolis. Positioned high above the counter at Chicago’s Lakeview Post Office, “Epic of a Great City” proclaims a stylized urban history to inspire people with a reminder of the resilience and progress of their city.
Becker, Heather. Art For the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.
Gray, Mary Lackritz. A Guide to Chicago’s Murals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Living New Deal.” http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu/projects/post-office-mural-chicago-epoch-great-city-chicago-il/
Harry Sternberg, “Chicago—Epic of a Great City,” (1938) in Lakeview Post Office, Chicago. Photo courtesy of David Baldwin and the US Postal Service