A majority of the artists that are featured in the New Deal Gallery lived in Manhattan. Even during the Great Depression, the city remained a destination for tourists or people of ambition: “The Limited, bearing a sight-seeing family (there are 115,000 of them daily from Waco, Mobile, Los Angeles, Kansas City), the literary genius of Aurora High School, the prettiest actress in the Burlington dramatic club, a farm boy hoping to start for Wall Street, and a mechanic with an idea, pounds across the state of New Jersey. They cross the meadows, see far off the great wall of the city and dive into the darkness beneath Jersey City and the Hudson River” (Federal Writers Project). But we also must remember that painters in the Federal Art Project were receiving government assistance, and that many of them had fled oppressive conditions. For them, New York was a place of refuge.
The painting at left is by Jacques Zucker, who was born in Poland but ran away from home at age thirteen, traveling by himself to study at the Bezalel Art School in Palestine (modern-day Israel). By the time he immigrated to the United States in 1922, he had seen a lot of things in the world. Probably one of them had been Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s allegorical Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, broken chains at her feet and holding a beacon of light aloft to the world. This may help to explain why Zucker’s painting of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park renders its allegorical figure so vividly, blurring everything else around it: we’re experiencing a vision. It’s different than the orderly, populated design of the Bethesda Terrace. The statue was called The Angel of the Waters to reference both a healing fountain in the Gospel of John, and the completion of New York’s sanitary water system from the Croton Aqueduct.
Zucker was just one of many New Deal Gallery painters who were immigrants. They arrived in New York from all over the world: Italy, Japan, Hungary, Russia, Armenia, the Netherlands, France, and more. The maps below show some of their birthplaces. Among American painters who relocated to Manhattan, some of their reasons may have involved the career ambitions already mentioned above, but the promise of sanctuary may have applied to them as well. John Sharp grew up in Iowa, then after traveling to the Art Students League for study met his lifelong partner, the painter Paul Crosthwaite. The two of them lived together openly at a time when that was unusual—as did the Bethesda Fountain sculptor, Emma Stebbins. New York was one of the few communities in the country where that would have been possible. Its identity as a unique place was geographical but also strongly cultural, and many of the paintings at Mt. Morris were painted by artists who probably couldn't have pursued that vocation anywhere else.
—Federal Writers Project. New York City Guide. Random House, 1939. Web version at Hathitrust.