Art Study

One-Third of the Nation is Ill-housed

The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Education Department

At first glance

What do you notice about the people in this image? Can you describe their appearance? Where are they? What clues hint at the size of the space?

Read to build knowledge

Six people occupy the tight and twisted spaces of this image—five appear through the open door of a one-bedroom apartment with crumbling walls, while a sixth sits on the stairs just outside the door. They are dressed in ragged clothing and the hard, angular lines of their faces and bodies suggest not only their bony, underfed state but also remind viewers of the harshness of their lives. We are looking in on a mother and her children in a “kitchenette” apartment in Chicago. These cramped and rundown living spaces were home to many African Americans due to the racial segregation of the city’s residential neighborhoods from the 1930s through the 1950s. These difficult conditions were only heightened by the lack of work and opportunity during the Great Depression (1929–1939), when this print was made.

The title of the print quotes U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech to the country after he was reelected in January 1937. The president urged Americans to work together to address problems of poverty and struggle, including the inadequate housing that so many people faced during the Depression. Bernece Berkman, a Jewish painter and printmaker in Chicago, was one of numerous artists at the time who hoped to draw attention to issues of inequality through her artwork. In this image, she not only illustrates what it’s like to be “ill-housed,” but she shows that the struggles identified by President Roosevelt were very real for African Americans in particular. Berkman was one of many artists who chose to print, rather than paint, such powerful images, so that they could be easily and inexpensively reproduced and shared with a wide audience.

Analyze and interpret

  1. Describe the artist’s style. How does the style of the image contribute to your understanding of what you see?
  2. What can you infer about living in a kitchenette apartment from Bernece Berkman’s print?
  3. Why do you think Bernece Berkman created this image?
  4. Do you think that this image of an apartment in Chicago reflects the greater issues in America during the Great Depression? If so, how?

For further reading (students)

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “kitchenette building,” in A Street in Bronzeville. 1945.

For further reading (teachers)

Oehler, Sarah Kelly. They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2013.

Modernism in the New City: Chicago Artists, 1920-1950. “Berence Berkman,”