This is a post I’m ill-equipped to write, and I welcome correction and addition by anyone with a better understanding of 20th century American painting.
There is a style of American art that I strongly associate with the Depression. You see this style in murals that decorate so many 1930s-era post offices and other government buildings. The subject matter is almost always rural life – agriculture, small-scale industry, landscapes that are either rolling farmlands or river bottoms. The style is certainly not abstract: people and their homes and activities are easily recognized and are often sharply drawn; but neither is it quite realistic: perspective is often distorted, details that in a photograph would show as straight lines – the corner of a cabin, for instance – are painted with slight curves, and people and animals often look more like cartoons than figures you would see in life.
These two murals, the first by Thomas Hart Benton, the second by Joseph Paul Vorst, will remind you of the style of painting I’m describing:
The style, known as Regionalism, apparently grew out of an early 20th century debate among American artists as to what American art was or should be. The movement’s best known artists favored American scenes and American subjects and downplayed their European origins or inspirations. This style flourished in the 1930s and mostly died out by World War II. That timing, together with the strong social conscience that led its proponents to paint scenes of Americans suffering from flood, the erosions of the Dust Bowl years, and poverty, is what ties it to the Depression, at least in my mind.
The Regionalist movement was centered in Missouri. From 1932 to 1941, the small town of Ste. Genevieve – the first permanent European town (it was French) west of the Mississippi, evidently – was home to an art colony where artists-in-residence taught summer classes and worked on their own paintings. Thomas Hart Benton worked there for only one year, but because of his prominence in the art world in general is the one most often associated with the colony there. Lesser known names, but recognized by museums, are Sister Cassiana Marie, Joseph Paul Vorst Bernard Peters, Martyl Schweig, Aime Goldstone Schweig, Mathew E. Ziegler, and a handful of others.
The one who interests us is Joseph Paul Vorst. Born in Essen, Germany, in 1897, he served during World War I and emerged permanently lame in one leg. He studied art in the National Academy of Berlin. In1930 he emigrated to the U.S., to, in his words, “obtain reserved liberty” for himself and his talents. He settled in Missouri because he had cousins in Ste. Genevieve. He split his time between Ste,. Genevieve and St. Louis, where he taught college-level art classes and developed his own painting style. He was associated with the art colony and summer school at Ste. Genevieve throughout its 1932-1941 run, and he won numerous competitions to paint murals in public buildings. In 1936, he joined the American Artists’ Congress in protest to Europe’s growing fascism. His works were exhibited in the great art competitions of the day – exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, at the New York World’s Fair, and at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. He had one-man art exhibitions in New York, Washington, and St. Louis. For someone you’ve probably never heard of, he was extraordinarily well known and respected in the 1930s.
This much you can find out by Googling. What nobody in the art world seems to know, though, is this: As devoted as he was to his art, as successful as he was in his professional life, there was another side to Joseph Paul Vorst.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, Joseph Paul Vorst was a Latter-day Saint. He was baptized in 1924, in Germany, and in the spring of 1931, he traveled from St. Louis to Salt Lake City to go through the temple there. He was a longtime member of the St. Louis Branch, active in the M.I.A. and always willing to serve the members with art tours or lectures. He was “a constant missionary.” A sister missionary, Virginia Freebairn, serving in Missouri in 1940 wrote, “Not enough could be said of Brother Vorst’s loyalty, his enthusiasm, his desire to help the St. Louis Branch, his genuine sincerity … He treats the missionaries royally … He leads the singing at Sacrament meeting and also does missionary work among his business associates. I love to hear him tell why he came to St. Louis to take up his work – about this being the chosen spot of the world. … This summer he is coming to Utah. One of the main reasons is to find some of the missionaries he met in the old country, particularly the one who baptized him.”
Joseph Paul Vorst died relatively young, in 1947, in St. Louis.
I’ve gathered an album of Joseph Paul Vorst’s work, posting it separately here so that you won’t be bothered by slow loading if you want to follow whatever conversation might develop in the comments here.