Depression-era artist’s work reflects a tumultuous period in the nation’s history. The work of Depression-era artist Maurice Merlin (1909–1947) is the subject of a new exhibition opening Jan. 19 at The Huntington—the first museum exhibition to focus on the under-recognized artist. “Maurice Merlin and the American Scene, 1930–1947” brings together approximately 30 paintings, watercolors, and prints by Merlin, as well as nine works by others in his circle, to shed light on the vibrant Detroit art scene in which Merlin worked while employed by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The show continues through April 15 in the Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing of the Scott Galleries.
The idea to organize an exhibition on Merlin began with a gift to The Huntington of his screenprint (1939) from collector Hannah Kully. “When we began to do research we realized this was a great opportunity to shed some light on a little-known, politically engaged artist who depicted the struggles of Detroit’s African Americans and others who suffered during the Great Depression,” said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Merlin studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and moved to Detroit in the late 1930s. During that time, he focused on topical subjects including strikes, unemployed workers, despoiled farmland, and the African American community there. Like other white artists in his circle who are represented in the exhibition, such as Frank Cassara, Basil Hawkins, and William Gropper, Merlin addressed the social tensions that the city and the nation faced during the Depression; and, like his friends, he found employment with the WPA.
Merlin’s art mirrored his strong social conscience. A good example, Black Legion Widow (1939, linocut) depicts the widow and child of Charles Poole, an unemployed autoworker who was murdered by members of the Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. And, though not about a specific political event, Merlin’s Little Negro Boy (late 1930s, oil on canvas) is a sensitive portrayal of poverty’s effects on African Americans and a testament to the breadth of the artist’s social engagement.
In Detroit, Merlin married and had a son. After World War II, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Merlin found employment as a commercial artist.
Though his career was cut short by an untimely death from cancer in 1947, Merlin produced a surprisingly wide-ranging body of work, some of which is housed in the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress, which has loaned two posters to the exhibition. The exhibition is supported by the Susan and Stephen Stephen Chandler Exhibition Endowment, by funds from Steve Martin for exhibitions of American art, and by the Sam Francis Foundation. James Glisson, Bradford and Christine Mishler Assistant Curator of American Art, will lead a private tour of the exhibition on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 4:30 p.m. Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128.