George Biddle

Life Dates

George Biddle (1885–1973) was a leading American artist whose work engaged with the human condition, in particular the social injustices he encountered in his journeys across the United States and abroad. Lithographer, muralist, and painter Biddle was instrumental in the formation of the US government-funded Federal Art Project. Born into a prestigious Philadelphia family, he earned a Harvard law degree and was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in 1911. He abruptly switched careers, however, and left for Paris to study art at the Académie Julian. A year later he returned to Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and then traveled back to Europe to study printmaking, spending summers with American impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke. After serving in World War I, Biddle escaped to Tahiti, where he painted and experimented with a variety of print techniques. When he returned to the United States, his work was shown at well-known galleries in New York.

During a 1928 trip to Mexico with artist Diego Rivera, Biddle was inspired by the political activism of the Mexican muralists and sought to bring the tradition home. In 1933, he contacted President Franklin Roosevelt, his childhood classmate and friend, to propose that the government set up a program to support mural painting. The Federal Art Project was soon born, providing funds for muralists as well as artists working in other media. Biddle would execute murals nationally and internationally over the next twenty years, notably for the National Library of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and the Supreme Court building in Mexico City.

In 1936, Biddle completed Society Freed Through Justice, an ambitious, multi-panel mural for the Department of Justice Building in Washington, DC. During World War II, Biddle was asked to create and chair the War Department Advisory Committee that would send artists to the frontlines. He traveled with his unit to Europe and Africa, making watercolors and drawings of what he saw. In 1946 Look magazine hired Biddle as an artist correspondent to the Nuremberg trials, at which his brother Francis served as one of four judges. Biddle’s drawings depict some of the most notorious Nazi leaders, many of whom were sentenced to death. These and other illustrations were published in Look with Biddle’s written descriptions of the trials. In 1950, President Harry Truman appointed him to the Fine Arts Commission, and a year later in 1951 Biddle accepted a professorship at the American Academy in Rome. Biddle’s work is in the collections of many prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.

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