Photo Essays

Idyllic, Depression-Era Watercolors of American Design

Gilbert Sackerman, Cast Iron Porch Railing, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor, graphite, and goauche on paperboard, Index of American Design All images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Gilbert Sackerman, Cast Iron Porch Railing (c 1936), watercolor, graphite, and goauche on paperboard, Index of American Design (all images courtesy the National Gallery of Art)

In 2013, the National Gallery of Art began digitizing their enormous collection of roughly 18,000 watercolors from the Index of American Design. The index began in 1935 as a component of the Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration. Over the six years that it functioned, the index employed approximately 1,000 artists to paint image records of American design items spanning from the colonial period through the 19th century.

At the heart of the project was a duality between creating new art while chronicling the old. Each watercolor is a work in its own right, credited to a particular artist, while also recording the mostly anonymous design and craftsmanship of others. The artists often painted while viewing the original objects, capturing an incredible amount of detail in the delicate beauty of watercolor.

The latest additions to the NGA Index image collection range from a peacock feather fan to ironwork architectural ornaments. The paintings of cast and ornamental iron by Gilbert Sackerman are especially appealing. One can see a measure of artistic license in them; Sackerman uses color and shadow to foreground parts of each image, while muting the backgrounds in beiges. In contrast to the paintings that portray small objects against a white surface, Sackerman’s works give the sense of a broader environmental context, an idealistically charming portrayal of a manicured America that bears little resemblance to the Great Depression out of which it grew.

Gilbert Sackerman, Ornamental Iron, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Ornamental Iron (c 1936), watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design
Edna C. Rex, Peacock Feather Fan, American, active c. 1935, c. 1938, watercolor, goauche, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design
Edna C. Rex, Peacock Feather Fan (c 1938), watercolor, goauche, and graphite on paper, Index of American Design
Gertrude Lemberg, Buttons, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design
Gertrude Lemberg, Buttons (c 1937), watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Ornamental Iron, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Ornamental Iron (c 1936), watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design
George Bobholz, Fireman's Belt, American, active c. 1935, 1938, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design
George Bobholz, Fireman’s Belt (1938), watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design
Frank McEntee, Corset, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design
Frank McEntee, Corset (c 1937), watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design
Harry G. Aberdeen, Bicycle, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design
Harry G. Aberdeen, Bicycle (c 1936), watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Ornamental Iron, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor, graphite, and goauche on paperboard, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Ornamental Iron (c 1936), watercolor, graphite, and goauche on paperboard, Index of American Design
Syrena Swanson, Purse, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and gouache on paper, Index of American Design
Syrena Swanson, Purse (c 1937), watercolor and gouache on paper, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Collonade, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design
Gilbert Sackerman, Collonade (c 1936), watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design
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