Regionalism
History, Characteristics of Mid-West American Scene Painting.

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American Gothic (1930)
Art Institute of Chicago.
By Grant Wood, one of the most
American of 20th century painters.

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American Regionalism (Fl. 1930s)

This style of painting was part of the wider American Scene Painting movement: it was in effect its mid-west branch, and flourished during the 1930s. Regionalism attracted those artists who shunned city life, with its rapid industrialization, to create nostalgic scenes of rural life. In particular, Regionalist paintings are characterized by their realistic depiction of scenes, architecture and figures from the American Midwest, exemplified by Grant Wood's masterpiece American Gothic (1930, oil on beaverboard, Art Institute of Chicago). One of the most patriotic forms of American art, regionalism coincided with The Great Depression, and its positive images and sense of nostalgia went some way towards mitigating the resulting gloom which was so prevalent across rural America. It was partly because of the Great Depression, that Regionalism became one of two important art movements in America in the 1930s - the other was Social Realism. It is also important to note that the United States was far more of an agricultural nation than it is in the 21st century, with a much smaller percentage of its population living in urban or metropolitan areas, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and so on.


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Anti-European Abstraction

If there was a single impulse behind Regionalism, it was a semi-patriotic rejection of European modern art (especially such abstract art movements as Cubism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Neo-Plasticism and Surrealism) in favour of a strictly American idiom - ideally one with roots west of the Mississippi. This regressive approach to finding an authentic American art shows why Regionalism equates comfortably with Provincialism.

The Regionalist Style - Characteristics

Like earlier American painting movements, such as the Ashcan School and Precisionism, Regionalism had no agenda or manifesto. Instead, Regionalist painters were inspired by a patriotic desire to promote a genuinely American type of art, marked by a naturalism and above all realism that adequately represented the nobility and legitimacy of small-town America.

 

Why Was Regionalism Important?

First, because it acted as a sort of a stepping stone from Academic realism to abstract art, not unlike Impressionism did in Europe. Second, in the meantime, it limited the spread of abstract art (to which it was fundamentally opposed) to the East Coast. Not until the 1940s, when Liberals gained control of the arts establishment - aided significantly by the post-war desire for change (!) - did the New York School supercede Regionalism with its new Abstract Expressionism. However, note that Regionalism, with its specific focus on American themes, images and motifs, helped American art to gain confidence in itself and not to rely on slavish imitation of European styles.

Regionalist Painters

The three leading Regionalists were the Grant Wood (1892-1942), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), and John Steuart Curry (1897-1946).

Grant Wood was born on a farm in Anamosa, Iowa - a state he rarely left during his life. After an early arts career involving painting, metalwork and stained glass, he went to Munich where he was so inspired by Flemish/Dutch Renaissance paintings that he took up serious painting in a precise realist style - an idiom which brought him the nickname "the Hans Memling of the Midwest". Specializing in regular people and everyday scenes of Iowa, he achieved national recognition with his work American Gothic (1930).

The Missouri-born Thomas Hart Benton studied in Paris with the Synchromist painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973), before returning to New York where he spent several years teaching at the Art Students League (his most famous pupil was Jackson Pollock). However, his competitive personality led him to reject the New York art establishment and return to his native Missouri to become head of the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design. An eloquent spokesman for Regionalism, Benton nevertheless promoted a respect for the Old Masters alongside his conviction that all art should be socially relevant. Noted Regionalist works by Benton include Cradling Wheat (1938, Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri) and Haystack (1938, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

John Steuart Curry, the least-known of the three, was born in Kansas and had an anecdotal, rather melodramatic style, often depicting the violence of nature. Famous works by Curry include Baptism in Kansas (1928, Whitney Museum of American Art), Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake (1930, Art Institute of Chicago), and several large-scale murals (1938-40) in Topeka, Kansas. He later accepted the post of artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture.

These three barely knew one another, the notion of a 'group identity' was engineered by Maynard Walker (1896-1985) the Kansas-born journalist and art dealer. In 1933, Walker staged an exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute, called "American Painting Since Whistler." The show featured works by Wood, Benton, and Curry, and in its catalogue Walker appealed to collectors to buy the art on display rather than the "shiploads of rubbish that have just been imported from the School of Paris." Supported by Time Magazine's owner, the arch-conservative Henry Luce, the Christmas 1934 edition of Time featured a painting by Benton along with highly positive reviews of other Regionalist art.

Other artists associated with the Regionalism movement include the Ohio-born watercolourist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), the New Mexico-based painter Peter Hurd (1904-84), and the Vermont artist Paul Sample (1896-1974).

Decline

By the early 1940s, Regionalism was in decline. There was only so much development that could be achieved within the Regionalist rubric of small-town pictorialism. Paradoxically, the movement grew up with a dream of replacing European abstraction with authentic American realism, only to be a catalyst for the greatest ever movement of abstract art - American Abstract Expressionism, led ironically by Benton's pupil Jackson Pollock (1912-56).

The principal heirs to Regionalism's tradition of naturalist realism included the great illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-78), whose nostalgic but hugely popular magazine illustrations of the American family made him a household name in the 1950s, and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), whose tempera masterpiece Christina's World (1948, Museum of Modern Art) competes with Wood's American Gothic for the title of America's favourite painting.

Works by American Regionalist painters hang in the best art museums across America. For details of collections which specialize in American art, please see: Art Museums in America.

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