(Underpass – New York)

Media - 1962.8.41 - SAAM-1962.8.41_1 - 1649
Copied Unidentified (American), (Underpass--New York), 1933-1934, oil on photograph on canvas mounted on paperboard, 19 7823 78 in. (50.660.8 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the Internal Revenue Service through the General Services Administration , 1962.8.41
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Artwork Details

(Underpass – New York)
Unidentified (American)
19 7823 78 in. (50.660.8 cm.)
Credit Line
Transfer from the Internal Revenue Service through the General Services Administration 
Mediums Description
oil on photograph on canvas mounted on paperboard
  • Landscape
  • Architecture — bridge
  • Landscape — road
  • Landscape — time — night
  • Landscape — New York
Object Number

Artwork Description

The street and sidewalks are empty; not a person, car, or even a stray dog is to be seen. What is the viewer supposed to see in this unpopulated street illuminated by glowing street lamps? Do the yellow street sign and the modest fireplug have some unexpected significance? The real subject of the painting turns out to be a newly built underpass designed to safely route cars under the train tracks in Binghamton, New York. During the 1930s several underpasses around Binghamton were upgraded by federal and New York State agencies working to improve city infrastructure while providing employment to those thrown out of work by the Great Depression. The stark lighting of street lamps at night shows off the clean lines of the freshly cast concrete as if the underpass were a modernist sculpture or an elegant new office building. The Smithsonian owns two other paintings documenting railroad underpasses built elsewhere in the country during the same era. All three were painted by Smithsonian American Art Museum artists working over photographs printed on canvas. Through documentary projects of this kind civil works became allied to artworks, providing employment for builders and artists alike.

1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label

Luce Center Label

This painting was created for the Federal Art Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration developed to give financial and moral support to artists during the Depression. There is no information about who the painter was, but in 1981 a visitor to the Museum recognized the underpass as one near his home in Binghamton, New York. The artist printed a photograph of the scene onto the canvas, then painted over it in careful detail. The glowing streetlights are like stars brought down to earth from the distant skies, drawing the viewer into the image and through the brightly lit tunnel. The road seems less like an ordinary street in the city and more like a portal into the great empty blackness above.

Related Books

1934: A New Deal for Artists
During the Great Depression, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “new deal for the American people,” initiating government programs to foster economic recovery. Roosevelt’s pledge to help “the forgotten man” also embraced America’s artists. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) enlisted artists to capture “the American Scene” in works of art that would embellish public buildings across the country. Although it lasted less than one year, from December 1933 to June 1934, the PWAP provided employment for thousands of artists, giving them an important role in the country’s recovery. Their legacy, captured in more than fifteen thousand artworks, helped “the American Scene” become America seen.