Luce Center: Harold Weston's Building the United Nations Series

Anne on August 5, 2016
Harold Weston's Building the United Nations–#2–Ramp over F.D.R. Drive

In This Case is a series of periodic posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in fifty-seven cases.

Harold Weston once told Magazine of Art, "theories and explanations about paintings are... usually unsatisfactory." However, as an artist, I find artists' experiences inform and enrich the artworks they create. The time and place in which a work of art comes to be influences what it is and what it means. An explanation of why Weston decided to paint his Building the United Nations series—two paintings of which are on display in the Luce Foundation Center—is an important part of experiencing the work. The paintings' meticulous realism only tells half the story.

Harold Weston was born to a wealthy family with progressive ideas. As a young man, he traveled to the Middle East with the Young Men's Christian Association. There, he witnessed and painted scenes of hardship and famine in Persia and India that would stay with him throughout his life. Weston took up residence in a one-room cabin in the Adirondack mountains when he returned to the U.S. He lived alone in the woods, hiking, sketching, and painting, until his marriage to Faith Borton in 1923. Faith became the subject of paintings that blurred the line between portraiture and landscape.

Weston's style shifted dramatically during the Great Depression, when government-funded initiatives provided opportunities for artists. He had been living in Europe and in New York in the years leading up to the Depression, painting soft, impressionistic scenes of fruit, nature, and human figures. Now, Weston was painting detailed, tightly rendered depictions of American industry for the Treasury's Relief Art Project.

World War II renewed Weston's interest in humanitarian relief efforts. In 1942, he quit painting and founded Food for Freedom, Inc. an organization that provided food for millions of refugees displaced by the war. When Weston returned to art seven years later, his dedication to global politics led him to embark on a series of paintings that chronicled the construction of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The new headquarters provided the visual and conceptual inspiration Weston needed to return to his artist practice after the long hiatus. The New York harbor and the bold, transparent design of the building created an exciting vista to capture. Weston's deep belief in the United Nations was another enticement. He felt the organization was the "greatest hope for a better world" and watching their new headquarters take shape brought him great joy. Painting the series united his need to create with his desire to work for the common good. Understanding Weston's background adds a layer of meaning to his Building the United Nations series. The idealism and the dedication of the artist have become essential components of the work.