Lily Furedi’s Subway” — American Art Moments

  • VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: "Subway" is one of my all-time favorite paintings, and it's by a woman named Lily Furedi who painted it in 1934 for a project sponsored by the federal government called the Public Works of Art project.

    Unfortunately, we don't know nearly enough about Lily Furedi. There are only a handful of paintings that are known by her. She was from Hungary and came to the United States in 1927 when she was 31 years old and then moved to New York. She had become a naturalized American citizen, which allowed her to be part of the Public Works of Art project.

    The government, when they hired these artists, asked them to paint some aspect of the American scene, the kind of people and life and situations that we would see around us if we were walking down the street in 1934.

    One of the things that has always struck me about "Subway" is that it's like this little enclosed world with all sorts of fascinating individuals. Some of them are pairs. The two women on the right-hand corner of the painting are clearly engaged in conversation. There is a woman who's putting on her lipstick. Just beyond the woman putting on her lipstick are a man and a woman sitting in the same seat. And the woman, you can't tell whether she's actually looking at the man or possibly just reading over his shoulder as people do on Metro cars.

    One of the things I also like a lot about the painting is the man with the violin case. Furedi came from a really distinguished family of musicians. Her father was a solo celloist and her uncle was a concert violinist. And I can't help but wonder if this is a nod to her uncle. He's dozing, as many of us do on the subway car, and he has on a black bow tie. So you wonder whether or not he's coming from a concert where he has been in his tux, in his formal performance clothing. Beside the man with the violin is a man who's reading a magazine, wearing a baseball cap. His clothes are so informal. Furedi introduces the idea of contrast. Here are people from all walks of life.

    Furedi had choices about where to put people, what color clothes to put on them. The colors are fabulous. Instead of just a pink dress, the pink is stripes of yellow, and blue, and pink. It's not what we call "descriptive color." It's not exactly the way color would function under normal light in real life. But it marked her as a modernist. As a woman who was not painting something exactly as it looked.

    "Subway" was selected for inclusion in this big show of work by artists employed by the Public Works of Art project. When President Franklin Roosevelt and his wonderful wife Eleanor came to see the show, they selected Lily Furedi's Subway to be moved over to the White House. And so it was on view there for many years.

    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.

    Hop aboard artist Lily Furedi’s Subway with Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator of 20th century art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Look closely at the choices Furedi makes in depicting a varied group of passengers on a New York City subway car in 1934. Learn more about the connection between this painting and the Public Works of Art Project, a federal program that supported artists during the Great Depression.

    This video is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's ongoing series American Art Moments. Join a SAAM expert and go beyond the artwork label to discover the untold stories and rich connections represented in some of the museum's most iconic artworks.

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