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American Regionalism

American Regionalism Collage

Started: 1928

Ended: 1943

"My early work is the result of going around that very territory where I lived and not seeing it."

Grant Wood

Summary of American Regionalism

At the height of the Great Depression, American Regionalists turned away from European modernism and urban abstraction to embrace subjects of the heartland. These works were figurative and narrative, returning back to an ideal of art-as-storytelling, rendered in precise detail. The American Regionalists celebrated familiar subjects in ways accessible for a general public, making their work popular among a broad range of audiences. Yet, with the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe, who used such realist and figurative art as propaganda, Regionalism came to be seen as politically problematic and retrogressive. It would be soundly rejected in the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s.

Key Ideas

The most famous Regionalist painters, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood, were all associated with specific regions of the American Midwest. This gave their art a local character that suggested its authenticity. They rejected the styles and theories of modern art to embrace techniques and stories that were more connected to an American folk tradition and traditions of Old Master painting.
Not all American Regionalism was clearly celebratory. The sincerity of work by Grant Wood, in particular, has been the subject of ongoing debate; some find his depictions of middle America to be reassuring and nostalgic, others see elements of satire and criticism. The work of Curry and Benton is generally more straightforward, although both include darker emotional and moral narratives in their work as well.
The sharp rise of American Regionalism, supported in part by the funding of federal agencies such as the WPA, was halted as totalitarian governments employed Socialist Realism as propaganda to support their regimes. Figurative art quickly became tainted by its stylistic similarities. The emergent Abstract Expressionism, which completely rejected Regionalist aesthetics (even though Jackson Pollock was a student of Thomas Hart Benton), would come to represent the American values of freedom and individuality in the 1940s. While certainly some artists, like Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, continued to work in a figurative and realist style, they were marginalized by the dominance of mid-century abstraction and not considered part of the Regionalist movement.
American Regionalism Image


The term American Regionalism refers to a realistic style of painting that began around 1930 and became popular during the Great Depression. Although urban subjects were included, the most popular themes of Regionalism were rural communities and everyday situations. Rather than a deliberate movement, guided by a manifesto or unified agenda, it developed organically through the works of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry who were dubbed the "Regionalist Triumvirate." Rejecting abstraction, they were responding to a cultural isolationism that saw much of modern art as foreign and out of touch with a true American spirit. These three men dominated the movement; although other artists were briefly associated with Regionalism, most remained limited to their local communities or else passed through to other styles for their mature career.

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