american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Ben Shahn, Miners' Wives, 1948 (Social Realism)

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads (Mexico City version), 1934 (Social Realism)

Thomas Hart Benton, Social History of Missouri, Missouri State Capitol Building, 1935 (American Regionalism)

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 (American Regionalism)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

social realism


people, terms, and concepts: the Great Depression, Regionalism, Social Realism, the Federal Arts Project (F.A.P.), the Farm Securities Administration (F.S.A.), Art Deco, streamlining, the machine aesthetic

This topic is about the visual culture of the 1930s and early 40s, and specifically about artistic responses to the Great Depression of 1929-33, when both the industrial economy and the agricultural economy were in major crisis.

•  The F.A.P. (Federal Arts Project) -- Part of F. D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ work relief programs run by the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) included direct funding for artists to produce public service posters and murals for public buildings such as post offices.

•  F.S.A. (Farm Security Administration) photography -- Roy Stryker commissioned photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document the plight of farmers during the Dust Bowl.

•  The Machine Aesthetic -- starting already in the 1920s, artists such as the Precisionists began noticing the ‘beauty’ of machines and using mechanomorphic styles (geometric and precise, as though made by machine) as a way to celebrate -- or resuscitate -- America’s industrial economy.

•  Art Deco -- slick, streamlined surfaces, futuristic design, and modern materials such as Bakelite and chrome are applied to everything from buildings and trains to posters and toasters in order to stimulate consumer interest and suggest a brighter future.

•  The Heroic Worker motif -- Muscular, square-jawed, and indomitable in the face of adversity, the celebration of the blue-collar working man (and even, during WW2, working woman) is one of the most ironic but pervasive visual motifs of the 1930s, when unemployment was as high as 30%.

•  Social(ist) Realism -- Ranging in style from highly naturalistic (Diego Rivera) to somewhat modernist (Ben Shahn), this highly politicized movement criticized Industrial Capitalism and celebrated Communism as a solution to labor problems and the economic crisis.

•   American Regionalism -- See question 1 below ... .

Note that these can overlap:  Art Deco partakes of the machine aesthetic (geometric, precise, interlocking, repeated forms); and the Hine, Benton, and Rivera below are all good examples of the heroic worker motif as well as the machine aesthetic, American Regionalism, and Social Realism, respectively.


Readings:  Craven chs. 28, 29 (pp. 439-43), 31 (476-80), & 36 (543-550)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as www.artstor.org.  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.


     1)       What was American Regionalism?  Describe both its typical style and its typical subject-matter.  How does American Regionalism, and especially the work of Thomas Hart Benton, relate to its social, economic, political, and economic context; specifically to (a) the Great Depression; (b) the growth of industrialization in America; and (c) the rise of modern(ist) art in America?  Explain using examples of your own choosing (email me your choices by Monday evening).

     2)      What was the FSA?  Discuss how the photographers employed by the FSA used ‘straight’ photography not only to factually document, but also to arouse sympathy for the plight of American farmers during the Great Dust Bowl and Depression, with special attention to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.  (Email me any other images you would like to discuss by Monday evening.)

     3)      Discuss how African-American artists used the visual language of Modernism to articulate both their current social conditions and their cultural heritage.

William van Alen, Chrysler Building, New York City, 1928-30 (Art Deco)

Louis Hine, Powerhouse Mechanic, 1920