American Scene Unit 7

In the 1920s, abstract art won the allegiance of the American art establishment. Realism was scorned as "hopelessly old-fashioned."

The stronghold of New York realists (led by Henri) was the Art Students League. John Sloan was elected director in 1931. Sloan stressed individual expression but resigned because of

1) controversy over hiring foreign teachers (such as German Expressionist George Grosz).

2) not associating art with social reform ("I question whether social propaganda is necessary to the life of a work of art").

To a small group of painters, realism was far from dead. Realism was the answer to America's search for a true native style. National art should show Americans in familiar settings; simple folk against rural backgrounds. This style became known as "American Scene." They worked in several different styles:

Thomas Hart Benton: curves, lush colors

Edward Hopper: spare, moody; abandoned houses

John Steuart Curry: views of customs, people & weather of Kansas

Grant Wood: people and places of Midwest with humor and insight

Their quest was for artistic rules for on which the public could base standards; they revived old tricks of academic illusionism: chiaroscuro, foreshortening, perspective, fine detail.

American Scene artists had the conviction that the American experience was different from the European experience which influenced O'Keeffe, Dove, Hartley, Marin and the Precisionists

Sometimes degradingly called "Regionalists," they aimed at capturing the image of America's heartland. They had a nostalgic interest in preserving disappearing local types and scenes. Their subjects were farms, Midwestern towns and coastal hamlets.

Visit "America Seen" at Sheldon.

After the first world war, Benton, Curry and Wood revolted against the "general cultural inconsequences of modern art." They rebelled against the "unhappy effects which the Armory Show of 1913 had on American Painting." In the name of democratizing art, Benton conceived a pictorial history of the U.S. in 64 panels. He completed 16.

These artists turned away from the academic world of empty pattern to meaningful subject matter; specifically American subject matter.

In turn, they were rejected by the art establishment, considered genre painters and dismissed as quaint depicters of local trivia. Their approval reached its peak during the depression as factories closed, millions stood in bread lines and once-confident businessmen were left penniless and shaken. The public found comfort in folk legends and uncomplicated views of rural and small-town life. The painters promoted a return to traditional values; they reasserted America's faith in itself by holding a mirror up to the land.

The success of the movement was not solely due to the depression; it was heralded as an overdue, welcome relief from modern art. The public was bewildered, irritated, bored or simply ignorant of what was being done in modern art. Abstract art was neither understood nor was the public particularly interested; they wanted people and places they could identify and identify with.

American Scene painting gained popularity with a large audience because:

1) it appealed to popular taste.

2) it was spread throughout country by paintings in banks, railway stations, post offices, public buildings first through the Public Works of Art Project (1933-34) and then by the Federal Art Project within theWorks Progress Administration.

This was the only art movement launched by a mass-circulation magazine. An art dealer named Maynard Walker sensed the resentments in America and was convinced that cultural popularism would sell. TIME was looking for a patriotic circulation builder for the Christmas 1934 issue; Benton's self-portrait was placed on cover.

There is an irony about this patriotic movement: there is not much difference between regionalist painting portraying capitalism and the official Soviet art of the same period.

With the 1930s came the end of the depression, the influx of European artists and the rejection of isolationism. American Scene painting was rejected as sentimental and obsolete.

Wood died of cancer when he was 50, but he told Benton that, if he recovered, he was going to change his name, go where he was unknown and start all over with a new style.

Curry commented to Benton that he might have been better off just staying on the farm.

Benton noted that "The art of today is the art of the 1920s, which we repudiated!"

American Scene artists showed what was right with America to encourage us follow the example of good.

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American Gothic
Art Inst. of Chicago

Thomas Hart Benton
Edward Hopper
John S. Curry
Grant Wood

Charles Burchfield

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