Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham

In the wake of the Great Depression, Birmingham experienced a remarkable transformation that helped shape the city as we know it today. Artist Richard Coe, an Alabama native, documented the city’s rapidly changing urban fabric in his prints and paintings. Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham brings together over 60 of Coe’s images of the city from this decade for the first time.

Richard Coe (United States, 1904-1978), Sloss Furnaces, etching, Lent by John Peter Crook McCall, AFI150.2017

In 1929, the stock market crashed and the United States economy plummeted into the Great Depression. By 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt had implemented a series of New Deal programs designed to speed economic growth and recovery. Coe arrived in Birmingham in 1934. Working in his Five Points South studio, he illustrated the local impact of these initiatives with his etching needle and paint brush.

In Coe’s images, billowing smoke stacks signify Birmingham’s burgeoning industrial economy. Shown side-by-side with the city’s gleaming downtown, these images capture a flourishing metropolis. Coe also pictured developing residential neighborhoods—both elite and humble—and scenes of daily life that relate a city reshaped by industrial growth and New Deal housing initiatives.

This exhibition represents the Birmingham Museum of Art’s ongoing commitment to exhibiting the arts of Alabama. It is also a part of the state-wide celebration of Alabama’s bicentennial, ALABAMA 200. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue of the same title.

Image above: Detail, Richard B. Coe, American 1904–1978, Down Town Birmingham, about 1935, etching on paper; Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of John Peter Crook McCall and Doy Leale McCall, III AFI.144.2017