American Regionalism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of American Regionalism
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.
In the 1920s, at the beginning of their careers, Wood, Benton, and Curry studied art in France and were influenced by a number of earlier and contemporary artists. Georges Seurat's pointillist works influenced Wood, as seen in his Spotted Man (1924) though Wood was also drawn to the works of the contemporary German movement, Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. Indeed, Wood's Stone City, Iowa (1930) continued to reflect this influence, and this landscape was even featured on the cover of a German newspaper in an issue devoted to Neue Sachlichkeit.
Stanton MacDonald Wright's Synchromism influenced Benton, as shown in his Bubbles (1914-1917), and his American Regionalist style continued to employ the vivid color palette and visual rhythm of the style, as well as elements of Cubist fragmentation and the heroic figures of Michelangelo.
Curry's lifelong influences were Peter Paul Rubens, who influenced his focus on dramatic action, and Gustave Doré, from whom he took an emphasis on emotional expression.
All three artists, however, felt dissatisfied with the current state of American art, finding it lacking in style and audience. Perhaps this sentiment is best expressed by Wood in a letter home: "The art dealers and the critics want no part of American art. They think this country is too new for any culture and too crude and undeveloped to produce any artists. You have to be a Frenchman, take a French name, and paint like a Frenchman to gain recognition." As all three artists returned to the United States, each began working towards the style that would come to be known as American Regionalism.
Development of American Regionalism
Each artist's work came to be associated with a region: Wood with Iowa, Benton with Missouri, and Curry with Kansas. Returning to Iowa, Wood worked as an interior designer, creating both local art and household items. His Corn Room (1926), a work created for hotels in four Iowan cities, depicting cornfields in a series of panels, reflected the evolution of his style toward local subjects and realistic treatments. In 1928, the Veterans Memorial Project commissioned Wood to create a stained glass window in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The work was a turning point for Wood in terms of his career but also it was important to his evolving style. As the expertise to create the detailed design existed only in Germany, Wood spent several months in Munich, where he encountered the portraits of the Northern European Renaissance artist Hans Memling. As art critic Peter Schjeldahl described, "Memling's precise delineation, incorporation of landscape backgrounds, piquant detail, and glowing color in oil glazes became aspects of Wood's style," as shown in Wood's subsequent portrait, Woman with Plants (1929).
Illustration played an important role in the Regionialist development of both John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. In the 1920s, Curry worked as an illustrator of American scenes, for The Saturday Evening Post and Boy's Life. Benton's service as an illustrator for the U.S. Navy in World War I emphasized realistic documentation over imaginative abstractions; he said later it was "the most important thing, so far, I had ever done for myself as an artist." Returning to New York in the early 1920s, Benton became an outspoken critic of European art. He began to celebrate regional subjects while summering on Long Island. His People of Chilmark (1920), depicting his family and friends in water and beach activities, embodied his artistic philosophy, "Now I know what I want to paint, it's these people who don't brag, who don't pretend to know more than they know. And what they know is useful. They know how to plow a field. They know where the fish are. But they don't know anything about aesthetics or museums or art."
American Gothic, 1930
Developing during the 1920s, American Regionalism burst into the public arena with the 1930 exhibition of Wood's American Gothic (1930) at the Art Institute of Chicago's annual show. The Chicago Evening Post ran a photograph and feature of the painting under the headline "American Normalcy Displayed in Annual Show; Iowa Farm Folks Hit Highest Spot." While this was the most popular acclaim yet accorded to the Regionalists, it was not the first: Curry had already received East Coast attention with the 1928 exhibition of his Baptism in Kansas (1926) at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and Benton's ten panel mural series, America Today (1930-1931), commissioned by the New School of Social Research in New York City exposed his work to the general public. In 1931, the Whitney Museum acquired Curry's Baptism in Kansas (1926), further cementing the critical standing of the movement.
Stone City Art Colony
In 1932 Grant Wood, along with Edward Rowan who owned the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Adrian Dornbush, a former director of the Flint Institute of Art, founded the Stone City Art Colony. They leased ten acres with the idea of creating an artist's colony that would provide Midwest painters a more accessible alternative to studying abroad or in New York. During the summer months of 1932 and 1933, artists resided in icehouse wagons, which they decorated themselves, and attended studios taught by Wood, and other artists, including Arnold Pyle, Francis Chapin, and Marvin Cone. The colony attracted many students and became an artistic hub, but a lack of funding forced its closure in 1933. In its short existence, the colony had extensive influence on Regionalist artists in the Midwest, including Lee Allen, Isabel Bloom, Conger Metcalf, and Daniel Rhodes.
Thomas Craven and Thomas Hart Benton
In the 1930s, the art critic Thomas Craven joined his lifelong friend Benton to become the most prominent spokesmen for Regionalism. Fueled by a combination of nationalism and xenophobia, Craven began decrying European avant-garde art and artists (and Americans inspired by their example) while promoting Benton as "The Great American Painter." Widely read, Craven's Men of Art (1931) was the best selling art book of the decade. He advocated that the American artists should "throw off the European yoke, to rebel against the little groups of merchants and esoteric idealists who control the fashions and the markets in American art." Craven's writing and influence, extended by his Modern Art: The Men, the Movements, the Meaning (1934), made American Regionalism into a kind of moral and patriotic crusade to save American painting from European modernism.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
American Regionalism peaked from 1930 to 1935, resonating with the spirit of crisis and renewal which marked The Great Depression. During this severe global economic depression, which began with the stock market crash in the United States in 1929 known as "Black Tuesday," banks failed, businesses went bankrupt, international trade dropped by over 50%, and unemployment rose to 25%. Disillusioned with the promises and failures of modern industry and big city dreams, many believed a return to the heartland with its assumed morality, honest labor and simple living was the solution; Regionalist painting connected to that sense of hope and nostalgia, along with the rejection of urban sophistication and international elitism.
To combat the economic crisis of the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched a series of federal programs in the 1930s to create jobs for the unemployed and social programs to help those affected. The Works Progress Administration, created in 1935, provided work for artists in public projects in towns throughout America. Artists created murals for post offices, hospitals, subway stations, state and national government buildings, and schools. Grant Wood's murals for both the Callahan Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, and Iowa State University were both funded by the WPA. Many Regionalists were employed through the WPA, as their populist and figurative works were popular with the selection committees and considered appropriate for public venues. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said citizens "have discovered in the last few years that art is something in which they have a part. They have discovered their own towns in pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors."
During this period, the other rising trend in American art was Social Realism. Artists like Ben Shahn, who were also called "urban realists," primarily focused on realistic depictions of city environments, but were more politically engaged in their work. As both American Regionalism and Social Realism emphasized realistic depictions of ordinary life, they are often grouped together under the umbrella term, American Scene Painting. Indeed, while there are some stylistic and thematic similarities between the two movements, American Regionalism tended to emphasize more nostalgic subjects or scenes of rural life, while Social Realism sought explicitly to illuminate the sufferings of the poor and disadvantaged in modern society.
American Regionalism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Benton was an early pioneer of Regionalist murals, although his work was independently commissioned by noted institutions, following the example of the New School in New York. Acclaim for that America Today (1930-1931) series led to new projects, including his Arts Of Life In America (1932) for the Whitney Museum of American Art's library, and The Cultural and Industrial Progress of Indiana (1933) for the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Curry was the first of the Regionalist to create projects funded by the WPA, painting Movement of the Population Westward (1937) and Law Versus Mob Rule (1937) at the Department of Justice. As is often the case with public art, controversies arose; just as Benton's depiction of a KKK rally in The Cultural and Industrial Progress of Indiana (1933) drew criticism, Curry's mural for the Kansas State Capitol, Tragic Prelude (1938-1940), was met by public outcry for its depiction of the Abolitionist John Brown and was only completed later after a state government decree.
Regionalism was well-suited for illustrations in the leading popular magazines and special book editions. Norman Rockwell's work for The Saturday Evening Post is the best known of this genre; his first was published in 1916 and through the following decades he created 323 cover images for the magazine. Rockwell's work was noted for its story-telling and the individualization of his idiosyncratic figures, often portrayed with a sense of humor; as the Post wrote, he didn't "seek 'perfect' models; he looked for 'real' faces and characters." While predating the recognition of American Regionalism as a movement, Rockwell's work reflected its aesthetics and subject matter and set the stage for the movement's popularity.
From 1921-1926, Curry also primarily worked as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post and Boy's Life. While he subsequently devoted himself to painting, his paintings continued to rely on composition methods that he learned from illustration to create emotional impact. In the 1930s, Benton created special editions of three of Mark Twain's books; as the curator Joan Stack explained, Benton "embraced Twain as a kindred spirit, someone who was as inspired by the land and people of Missouri just as much as he was." In 1937, Wood illustrated Main Street (1920) by Upton Sinclair, the first American author to win the Noble Prize, capturing the gritty reality of small town life in the Midwest.
Later Developments - After American Regionalism
By the mid-1930s, as fascism rose in Germany and Spain and the possibility of war threatened, the anti-Semitic nature of Craven's xenophobic promotion of Regionalist artists led to criticism that the movement was reactionary and provincial. His attacks on the European avant-garde linked modernism to Jewish influence, as expressed in as his description of Alfred Stieglitz, who had promoted the European avant-garde in the United States, as "a Hoboken Jew without knowledge of, or interest in, the historical American background." By 1935, in his essay "Revolt Against the City," Wood had to defend Regionalism from these accusations; he argued that looking to America and its agrarian roots had led to his artistic independence and the development of a personal style, not a rejection of larger artistic trends and theories. The following year, art critic Meyer Schapiro's "Race, Nationality, and Art," (1936) denounced anti-Semitic critics and particularly Craven, as Regionalism became increasingly associated with extreme nationalism and small-minded bigotry. As totalitarian governments in Europe and Russia attacked modernism as degenerate and promoted realist styles of painting (particularly of agrarian subjects), figurative painting became tainted. With the 1939 publication of Clement Greenberg's famous essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," which argued for avant-garde art and identified realism as easily corrupted into propaganda and kitsch, defined as "a debased... simulacra of genuine culture," Regionalism was artistically dismissed. It is telling that Jackson Pollock, the leading Abstract Expressionist, was one of Thomas Hart Benton's students; his rebellion could hardly have been more complete.
Following the early and unexpected deaths of Grant Wood in 1942 and John Steuart Curry in 1946, Regionalism, as a movement, came to an end. The larger art world moved away from narrative and realist styles, although some artists, such as Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, continued creating figurative works into the 1970s; these artists were considered outliers rather than part of the Regionialist movement.
Despite its quick fall from grace, Regionalism did influence subsequent artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, George Tooker, and Harry Hickey, who looked to Grant Wood's example. Wyeth's work has been noted as important to the painter Peter Doig and the photographer James Welling, while Mark Tansey and John Currin have both referenced Norman Rockwell's work. In general, however, American Regionalism fell out of favor, even as many Regionalist art works became pop culture icons: Wood's American Gothic and Rockwell's Freedom from Want have been widely reproduced in advertisements, referenced in television shows and movies, and often parodied.
The 1990s and onward saw a renewal of interest in the Regionalist painters; of note is a 2018 Grant Wood exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York which has led to a re-evaluation of his work.