“Painting Section” or Painting Texas?: Negotiating Modernity and Identity in the Texas New Deal Post Office Murals



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This dissertation addresses the Texas New Deal Post Office murals, which were commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts as part of a national New Deal arts program meant to decorate newly constructed Post Offices. I analyze the Texas murals from local, state, regional and national perspectives to argue two primary, interrelated points concerning their production and interpretation.

First, in contrast to prior, general scholarship on the Section of Fine Arts murals, this study contends that the artists hired by the Section to paint in Texas Post Offices did not have to change their usual styles or subject matter in order to gain Section commissions. Rather, the muralists who painted in Texas worked from one of seven regionalist art centers located throughout the American Southwest and had followed or pioneered American Scene principles later adopted by the Section of Fine Arts.

Second, this study foregrounds the murals as containers of meaning related to their local contexts. This approach also contrasts with prior scholarship, which has primarily connected the murals’ themes with national issues related to the Great Depression. This study concludes that the murals, as containers of meaning issuing from the artists’ intentions and their local contexts, reflect not just issues related to the Great Depression, but broader problems surrounding the intrusion of modernity into Texas in the late 1930s and early 1940s. More specifically, this dissertation interprets the murals within a shift in Texas identity at this time, from one based on diverse, regional distinctions to a constructed, unified and exceptionalist identity.

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American art, Depression, New Deal, Post office murals, American Scene, Regionalism, Texas, Identity, Modernity, Exceptionalism, Section of Fine Arts, Peter Hurd, Victor Arnautoff, Southwest regionalism