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MURALS. A mural is art painted directly on a wall, making it a visual component of a building. Throughout history, murals have been created for a spectrum of environments, including caves, churches, state capitals, factories, corporations, schools, libraries, post offices, courthouses, and residences. By nature of the medium, mural painting is typically restricted by several conditions, including scale, orientation, fixed spatial requirements, the purpose of the architectural structure, and the appropriateness of its subject matter for its patron or audience. Unlike an easel painter, the muralist must consider and overcome all or several of these factors in the construction of his or her imagery. Mural painting involves inherent social obligations and formal strategies that extend beyond the scope of a purely personal vision to a broader form of communication that is often rooted in shared social beliefs.

By the early 1900s, academic mural painting was flourishing in the United States and reflected many of the Progressive Era's themes, including big business, U.S. international involvement, conservation of the natural environment, and social issues concerning the poor, laborers, and women. Many of these issues, which were vigorously opposed during the 1920s, eventually became reemphasized during the New Deal era, often in the form of a mural. The New Deal mural movement exposed and affirmed the social role of mural art like no other period in American history.

The transformation that took place in the history of mural art during the 1920s and 1930s was highly influenced by the government sponsorship of public murals in Mexico. The Mexican president Alvaro Obregon began a nationalist cultural program in the 1920s. As part of this program, the Mexican Ministry of Education and other government entities commissioned artists to create public murals. The most prominent muralists were Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, often referred to as "Los Tres Grandes" (the Three Giants), who later received private commissions in the United States. The program in Mexico became a model for the U.S. government's New Deal efforts beginning in 1933. The careers, styles, and techniques of the Mexican muralists inspired the emerging muralists of the New Deal era.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal began in 1933 after four years of a devastating economic depression. Echoing Theodore Roosevelt's Square Deal, it reinstated Progressive Era priorities and expanded on the original Square Deal goals. In addition to these goals, it established a series of art programs dedicated to indigent artists, starting with the Public Works of Art Project (1933– 1934) and continuing with the Works Progress Administration's famous Federal Art Project (1935–1943), which sponsored a wide range of art activities, including a massive program to create murals in public institutions such as schools, libraries, hospitals, and courthouses. The unprecedented production of murals in the United States during this period remains a testimony to the government's effort to bring art to the American people. Mural art has continued to flourish since this period, and the murals seen on public walls throughout America serve as a reminder of art's ability to act as a record of a people, place, and time.


Becker, Heather. Art for the People. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.

O'Connor, Francis V., ed. Art for the Millions. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973.