New Deal Arts in Focus: Subway

Our video series American Art Moments takes a closer look at an important New Deal painting in SAAM’s collection

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Lily Furedi, Subway, 1934, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lily Furedi’s Subway is an endlessly fascinating painting for me. It brings up memories of growing up in New York City where the train meant the possibility of freedom (you could go seemingly anywhere) as well as the more mundane aspects of city life (getting to work in rush-hour crowds). As a child traveling with my parents, I always liked it when we could stand at the front of the first car, and I could stare out the window and watch the endless tracks unroll before me. How far could they take me? The subway was also a font of storytelling: both real and imagined. I liked to invent stories about my fellow passengers. Were they a couple across from me? What was really in that attaché case? Every passenger was a story waiting to be told. 

Furedi's homage to the New York underground, created in 1934 as part of the Works Progress Administration under the umbrella of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, brings those memories back to me. Who should we look at first? The two women on the right in conversation? The man in dapper dress holding a violin case? Or the woman at left (I almost said stage right because it feels like a bit of theater), the seeming star of the show, applying lipstick. (And the hats! So many hats!)

The painting is also a favorite of Senior Curator of Twentieth Century Art Virginia Mecklenburg. In the video below, she talks about the painting as part of the museum’s American Art Moments video series. We learn more about the artwork, the identity of one of the passengers, and how the painting ended up at the White House. We also discover the larger importance of the work. As Mecklenburg says, “The Public Works of Art project and the other federal art programs in the 1930s really represent a watershed moment in American art. No longer is it the stuff for culturally sophisticated elite people, collectors. All of a sudden, art was really for everyone.”

May 20, 2021 marked the 125th anniversary of Furedi’s birth. We celebrate her life by taking a closer look at Subway. It takes me on a journey each time I see it.