In August 1938, Kainen married Bertha Friedman, a young woman
he had known for three years. The couple moved to the Bronx and
Kainen moved out of his Manhattan studio and started painting
at home. The couple would go on to have two sons, Paul and
Daniel. They struggled to live on Kainen’s meager salary,
exacerbated by WPA’s frequent firings and rehirings. (Kainen
would later recount his experience at WPA in The New Deal Art
Projects: An Anthology of Memoirs published in 1972.)
In 1942, as prospects at WPA looked dim, Kainen made the
life-changing decision to leave New York and move to
Washington, D.C. to work as an aide for the Division of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center). He hated leaving New York, his friends and fellow artists, but he needed steady work and thought the move to Washington would be temporary.
Kainen was immediately shocked by the state of Washington’s rudimentary, slow-paced art scene, a wasteland for contemporary art. He would become a major force in turning that around.
What I found particularly conspicuous, like missing a front tooth, was the lack of an older generation of ambitious artists, that we, the upcoming generation, could look up to and cross swords with…. It was difficult to start out in Washington like Robinson Crusoes. — Jacob Kainen
During the late 1930s, Kainen and seven other painters Alice Neel, Jules Halfant, Herbert Kruckman, Louis Nisonoff, Herman Rose, Max Schnitzler and Joseph Vogel formed the New York Group, an exhibiting body that Kainen wrote “is interested in those aspects of contemporary life which reflect the deepest feelings of the people; their poverty, their surroundings, their desire for peace, their fight for life.” His expressionist and social leanings began to definitively merge in his work. The New York Group exhibited twice at New York’s A.C.A. Gallery and Kainen had his first solo show there in 1940.