"These artists were not only getting a check, they were getting an audience. That was crucially important to them," said museum Director Elizabeth Broun. "They felt inspired that they were painting for the American people."
The 56 portraits in the show range from cityscapes to pictures of rural life.
The paintings include Morris Kantor's "Baseball at Night," from a time when electricity was still new in many places and teams of farmers relished the chance to play ball after work, as well as the panoramic "Golden Gate Bridge" by Ray Strong, which celebrates the structure's engineering feats.
Ironically, the exhibit began as a way for the museum to save money during its own budget crisis caused by a sharp decline in private fundraising, Broun said. Rather than pay for expensive traveling exhibits, the museum decided to draw on its own collection to focus on the New Deal-era paintings.
"As the economy was crumbling around us, we realized this had, not exact parallels, but some similarities to the situation today," Broun said. "It's timely to look back and see what was done for artists 75 years ago."
The museum created a Web site for teachers to use the paintings in their history lessons and a Flickr site to share hundreds of images with the public.
The exhibit will be on view through January 2010, followed by a three-year tour of U.S. museums.
On the Net:
Smithsonian American Art Museum: http://americanart.si.edu