Chapter 14: American Art 1900-1940

With the declaration of Independence in 1776, the United States became a new nation in search of an identity.  Artists who contributed to this effort include Gilbert Stuart (renowned portraitist of George Washington), John Singleton Copley (whose portrait of Paul Revere we looked at previously), and John Trumbull, who painted many modern history paintings commemorating the American Revolution.  But most serious artists continued to look to the authority of Europe, and some, like Benjamin West, pursued their careers abroad.

American Scene
American artists who remained at home explored subjects unique to American life — so much so, that their work is collectively referred to as “American Scene.”  Ranging in style from Dutch genre-type scenes to modern-life subjects inspired by French Realism and Impressionism, American artists explored a range of themes unique to the American experience.

Learn more:  American Stories:  Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915 (Met Museum)

Thomas Eakins
Often considered the father of “American Scene,” Thomas Eakins was born in Philadelphia and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art.  He also studied anatomy at the Jefferson Medical College, and spent several years studying abroad (as was customary for American artists), where he discovered the work of Rembrandt and Velasquez (artists that were also admired by Manet for their realism).  When he returned to Philadelphia he joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania Academy, where his teaching methods became controversial.  Breaking with academic tradition, he encouraged students to study anatomy and the live nude model, rather than plaster casts of classical sculptures.  He was fired when he removed the loincloth from a model posing for a group of students that included women.

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Inspired by Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, this painting represents the famous surgeon Dr. Samuel Gross performing surgery at Jefferson Medical College, where Eakins studied anatomy.  The picture was considered “graphic” in its realism (note the blood on the surgeon’s hands, and the cringing family member to the left).  When it was submitted to the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 the jury rejected it because the realism was considered too brutal.  The poet Walt Whitman wrote that Eakins was the only artist he knew of “who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is.”

Thomas Eakins, William Rush Carving His Allegory of the Schuylkill River, 1877
Philadelphia Museum of Art

This painting depicts the studio of the Neoclassical sculptor Thomas Rush, who founded the Pennsylvania Academy of Art.  The sculptor is shown at work on an allegorical sculpture – the type of work for which he was famous.  But Eakins focuses our attention on the foreground model and her chaperone (recalling the chaperones in Degas’ Ballet pictures).  Eakins clearly found the real life model far more interesting than the allegorical sculpture, which literally fades into the background of the picture.  When the work was exhibited in 1878, it was considered shocking because the realism of the model’s nudity was considered improper:

“What ruins the picture is much less the want of beauty in the model . . .  than the presence in the foreground of the clothes of that young woman, cast carelessly over a chair. This gives the shock which makes one think about the nudity—and at once the picture becomes improper.”
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871
Metropolitan Museum

This painting depicts Max Schmitt, a lawyer and champion oarsman, in a scull on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.  The Girard Avenue bridge and a railroad bridge can be seen in the background, making the setting specific and local.   Like the French Impressionists, Eakins’ advocated modern life subjects, but he also encouraged his students to seek out uniquely American subjects.  “If America is to produce great painters,” he once wrote,  “remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life.”  This search for a distinctly American subject matter became an abiding concern of artists in the United States during the 20th century.

Winslow Homer, Veteran in a Field, 1865
Metropolitan Museum

Winslow Homer also dedicated his work to the sights and scenes of American life.  He began his career as an illustrator, and during the Civil War he was sent to Virginia as an artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly.  While his work for the journal was largely illustrational and anecdotal, this picture is one of two that he completed after the end of the war that reflects more deeply on its meaning and impact.  The picture depicts a lone veteran of war reaping hay with a scythe.  While the hay symbolizes hope for a bountiful future, the scythe-wielding figure also suggests the “grim reaper,” and refers to the many soldiers lost during the war, as well as the recent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip, 1872
Metropolitan Museum

One of Homer’s most famous paintings depicts a group of young boys playing a popular game after school (their one room schoolhouse can be seen in the background).  A nostalgic image of the innocence and simplicity of rural life, scholars have interpreted the picture as a meditation on the uncertain future of America after the Civil War:

“Here Homer reminisces about rural simplicity and reflects on the challenges of the complex post–Civil War world . . . As the population shifted to cities and the little red schoolhouse faded from memory, this image would have evoked nostalgia for the nation’s agrarian past. The boys’ bare feet signal childhood’s freedom but their suspenders are associated with manhood’s responsibilities. Their game, which requires teamwork, strength, and calculation, may allude to the reunited nation. Observed from right to left, Homer’s boys hang on to one another, strain to stay connected, run in perfect harmony, and fall away, enacting all the possible scenarios for men after the Civil War.”
Metropolitan Museum

Robert Hughes – American Visions – Episode 4

The Armory Show and American Abstract Artists
American audiences remained largely unaware of European modern art until the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which gave audiences a “crash course” in early 20th century Modernism.  The initial reaction was negative, but by the 1930’s there was a growing number of art professionals and cultural institutions sympathetic to European modernism.   A small circle of American Abstractionists formed around Alfred Steiglitz’s 291 gallery in New York in the early decades of the century, and by the 1930’s a growing number of artists began to abandon the “isolationist” attitudes of their contemporaries, creating works derived from Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and a host of other European vanguard styles.   The Museum of Modern Art, which opened its doors in 1929 also did much to foster European abstraction.  From its inception, the museum favored European modernism over homegrown talent, and under the direction of Alfred Barr it played an influential role in reshaping American attitudes towards abstraction.

The Armory Show
When the Armory show opened its doors in 1913, American audiences were introduced for the first time to movements such as Post Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism.  Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase  was singled out for particular ridicule:

“The painting was perceived by the majority of art critics to be utterly unintelligible, and it soon became the butt of jokes, jingles, and caricatures. The American Art News offered a ten dollar reward to the first reader who could “find the lady”1 within the jumble of interlocking planes and jagged lines, and newspaper cartoonists had a field day with the painting, lampooning it with such titles as “The Rude Descending the Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway)” and the memorable “Explosion in a Shingle Factory.”
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Armory Show – tour the works included in the show

Georgia O’Keefe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 4, 1930
National Gallery of Art
Edward Weston, Pepper, 1930

Several artists associated with Alfred Steiglitz’s circle explored a more abstract style of painting, influenced by European modern art.  Georgia O’Keefe arrived at abstraction through close-up paintings of flowers.  This painting, for example, appears to be completely abstract at first, but it is actually a blown-up close-up view of a type of flower known as a Jack-in-the-pulpit.  By enlarging it so much, O’Keefe forces us to see the object in terms of its colors and shapes, rather than “what it is.”

O’Keefe was influenced by American photographers such as Edward Weston, who used close-up shots of objects to explore their abstract qualities (focusing on form and shape rather than subject).  O’Keefe explained her desire to make viewers see the world in a different way:

“If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
Georgia O’Keefe

Alexander Calder, Lobster Trap and Fish, 1939.  Museum of Modern Art
Alexander Calder, Lobster Trap and Fish, 1939. Museum of Modern Art

Like many American abstract artists, Alexander Calder traveled to Paris to experience avant garde art first-hand.  While there he created delightful characters out of wire, and performed them like puppets in his so-called “Circus.”

Calder then began creating kinetic sculptures that he called “mobiles.”  Combining the primary colors of Mondrian with the biomorphic shapes of Miró, Calder’s mobiles are abstract sculptures that move through space, like planets in space, or fish swimming in the sea.

Get to Know Alexander Calder (High Museum)

The Precisionists
The Precisionists explored modern American industrial subjects in their work, synthesizing the abstract, two-dimensional clarity of pattern derived from Cubism with the American tradition of realism.  The Precisionists admired the clean-edged forms of the machine age, and they painted pictures composed of geometric shapes and precise edges that have a machine-like quality.  Their pictures expressed American optimism towards industry in the 1920’s and 30’s, as art historian Barbara Haskell writes:

“Americans raised industry into a national religion.  The widespread availability of radios, telephones, and automobiles transformed public life . . . So pervasive was the impact of mechanization of the lives of ordinary citizens that people began speaking of their era as the ‘machine age.’ . . . .  Henry Ford proclaimed industry as the ‘New Messiah,’ and President Calvin Coolidge declared, ‘The man who builds a factory builds a temple.  The man who works there worships there.'”
Barbara Haskell, The American Century:  Art & Culture 1900-1950, Whitney Museum of Art, 1999, p.   150-3

Charles Demuth, My Egypt, 1927
Whitney Museum of American Art

In the 1920s Demuth began painting industrial subjects such as water towers and factories, using clean precise forms and slightly fragmented planes derived from Cubism.  This painting depicts a grain elevator in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which Demuth transformed into an icon of American prosperity.      By titling the work “My Egypt,” Demuth suggests that factories are to America what the great Pyramids were to ancient Egypt – enduring symbols of prosperity, and monuments of religious reverence.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930
Museum of Modern Art

Charles Sheeler also viewed factories as modern religious architecture, and industry as the new American religion.  He based this painting on photographs of the newly opened Ford Motor Factory in Missouri (built to manufacture the Model A).  The picture depicts the gleaming new factory with no hint of the damage it will soon inflict on the environment.  Instead, the artist instills the scene with a placid stillness that borders on religious reverence.

By titling the picture “American Landscape,” Sheeler also suggests a new relationship between the natural and manmade worlds:

“American Landscape toys with our expectations. In a painting of that title, we hope to find a peaceful view of mountains and trees, or perhaps cottages and crops . . .  Instead, Sheeler gives us factories, silos, and smokestacks. The work expresses the artist’s view that the forces of human culture, propelled by industrialism, have overtaken the forces of nature that once laid claim to American landscape painting. Here, all that’s left of the natural world is the sky, and not even that escapes the effects of mass production: the smoke rising from a smokestack blends into the clouds, making them just another by-product of industry. Like many traditional American landscapes, this one is organized around a body of water. Yet here, the water is contained in a canal, an artificial channel that controls its flow.”
Picturing America NEH Resource Guide

The Regionalists
The Regionalists came to prominence in the 1930s in the wake of the Great Depression.  Reacting against the rapid modernization of the nation, and the increased power of American Capitalism, leading Regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood painted folksy pictures of American farmers and cowboys who embodied the down home values and rugged individualism of the pioneers who had fist settled the nation.  Reflecting the isolationism of American society in the early decades of the 20th century, the Regionalists were deeply critical of European influence on art, dismissing it as a “foreign” import, and implicitly “effete.”  Grant Wood captured the outlook of the Regionalists in his famous quip:   “ I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa.’”

Learn more:

Thomas Hart Benton, The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, 1934
Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas

Thomas Hart Benton was from Missouri, and cultivated a cowboy persona in rebellion against the refinement and sophistication of the American “city slicker”:

“Although he’d been to soirées in “Paree” and New York’s Stork Club, American artist and muralist Thomas Hart Benton played a harmonica and reveled in his self-honed image as a hard-drinking hillbilly. Detractors, both past and present, dismissed Benton’s art as “Okie baroque”, while supporters praised his efforts to paint realistic images based on American subject matter.

Focusing on rural themes and “cowboy” values, Benton’s style is characterized by cartoonish figures that are strangely distorted, giving them a folksy and brawny quality.  His most famous student, Jackson Pollock, was deeply influenced by him in his early work.

The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley was inspired by a traditional Ozark folksong about a man who killed his lover out of jealousy.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930
Art Institute of Chicago

Grant Wood came from Iowa, and he rejected modernist influence in favor of the detailed realism of Flemish painting.  This painting has become an icon of American identity.  It depicts a farmer and his spinster daughter (the models were actually a dentist and the painter’s sister), posing in front of a clapboard house in the “American Gothic “ style (so-called because of the Gothic arched windows, that connoted the spiritual nature of the home).  The figures embody the values of the American Midwest:  hard working and God-fearing, their stoicism can be read in their sober expression, plain dress, and lack of pretension.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 (Smarthistory)

The Great Depression and the WPA
The Great Depression had a significant impact on American Art.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” (1933-1936) was a sweeping program designed to provide work for the unemployed and rebuild the nation’s economy.  The Federal Art Program (part of the “Works Progress Administration, or “WPA”) was created to provide relief for unemployed artists.  Artists were paid a weekly wage, and thousands enjoyed the benefit of government support between 1935-1943. Many artists who later became members of the New York School (Pollock, Gorky, De Kooning) worked for the WPA.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley, 1935

Documentary photography flourished under government funding during the Great Depression.  The Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to document the impact of the Depression across the nation:

“As FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein later recalled, “It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.”
Documentary Photography and the Great Depression

Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a migrant mother in the California Dust Bowl brought national attention to the plight of California farm workers.

Social Realists
Many American artists used realism to agitate for social change and to criticize corruption.  Most notable was Philip Guston, who produced a series of illustrations attacking the Ku Klux Klan (Guston, who later became an abstract painter, returned to these themes in the 1980’s), and Ben Shahn, who remained committed to political art throughout his life.

Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1932-32
Whitney Museum

Ben Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti was about a notorious trial in which two Italian-American men were wrongly executed for murder:

“The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, by Ben Shahn, shows four villains, judges, very distinguished Massachusetts citizens, standing over the coffins of the recently executed victims of the injustice, Sacco and Vanzetti.  The people standing over the coffin, in the center, A. Lawrence Lowell, the bigoted president of Harvard University, who was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to be the chairman of the commission to review the Sacco-Vanzetti case . . . Standing over them . .  is the Judge Webster Thayer who presided over the trial . . .  He told people he was out to get these radical Italians, and he would not rest until they were in their graves . . .The case itself was a simple armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts.   A paymaster was shot and killed. Nobody will ever know whether Sacco and Vanzetti, or Sacco or Vanzetti, were responsible for the killings . . . They were sentenced to death, and the execution was carried out after many many protests and much turmoil. And the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti will live on. And we will long understand the real villains of the case were the judges and the university presidents who lent the legitimacy and the legitimacy of their institutions to a case of racism and injustice.”
Whitney Museum

The Harlem Renaissance
African American artists of the Harlem Renaissance also embraced art as means to social change.

Jacob Lawrence, Migration of the Negro,1940-41
Phillips Collection
Jacob Lawrence, No. 49, from The Migration of the Negro, 1940-1941. Phillips Collection

In 1940 Jacob Lawrence embarked upon a series of sixty paintings documenting the “migration of the negro”  — the massive population shift that occurred after World War I, as Black plantation workers left the rural south in search of jobs in the industrial north.  Each picture is a vignette that captures the essence of the African American experience with the simplicity and directness of a children’s book illustration.  With terse captions, the unfolding story captures the hopes (better housing conditions; the right to vote), and the disappointments – as in this image, with its caption:  “They also found discrimination in the North, though it was much different from that which they had known in the South.”  With stunning simplicity, the artist captures the essence of segregation in a scene of diners, divided according to race.

Jacob Lawrence and the Making of the Migration Series (Humanitieswdc)

Edward Hopper
The most famous “American Scene” painter was Edward Hopper, whose paintings from the 1930s and 1940s captured the loneliness and alienation of modern urban and suburban life.

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930
Whitney Museum of American Art

This painting of an early morning street is based on a real street in Greenwich Village, but it could be any street anywhere in the USA.  There is not a soul in sight, and the shop windows are empty, dreary, and cheerless.  The apartment windows are equally devoid of life, and the long shadows cast by the morning sun creates an ominous tone.  The picture could be the stage set for a horror movie, depicting the end of the world (Hopper’s lighting is often compared to the mysterious and disturbing lighting effects used in Film Noir).  In its emptiness and stillness, the picture captures the economic devastation and stagnation of the Great Depression.

Listen to an audio description:

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
Art Institute of Chicago

Hopper’s most famous picture depicts a lonely diner at night.  The empty streets and sparsely populated diner evoke the cold and impersonal environment of the modern industrial city.

“The painting reveals three customers lost in their own private thoughts. The anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as remote from the viewer as they are from one another. Although Hopper denied that he purposely infused any of his paintings with symbols of isolation and emptiness, he acknowledged of Nighthawks that, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city”
Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Hopper’s New York (NGA) 

Frank Lloyd Wright
The most famous American architect was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose architecture combined modern materials and natural forms.  Wright invented the “prairie style” of architecture, which included a horizontal emphasis (the origin of the “ranch style” house), open floor plans, and lots of windows that bring the outside in.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Kauffman House (Falling Water) Bear Run, Pennsylvania

Wright’s most famous building, the Kauffman House, located in Bear Run Pennsylvania, exemplifies his “naturalistic” approach to architecture.  The building incorporates an actual waterfall, and was designed to blend into the natural surroundings.  While most buildings have a definable “shape” (usually a box), Wright’s building is composed of a series of cantilevered platforms that ascend the cliff like rock outcroppings.  Inside, spaces are open, and provide a variety of vistas onto the surrounding environment.  Wright was one of the first American architects to achieve international fame, and his style became very influential in subsequent decades.


Web Resources:

American Stories:  Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915 (Metropolitan Museum)

Picturing America (National Endowment for the Humanities)

Life of the People:  The American Scene (Library of Congress)

American Scene Painting – The Art History Archive

The Armory Show, University of Virginia Petersen

Modern Art and America, National Gallery of Art

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