By Mary Manion
A new spirit in art was sweeping across America in the 1920s. American artists, dissenting from European schools of avant-garde and abstract art, were primed for a change in expression. American scenic painting was evolving into a distinct style, embracing the American ways of life.
From the coastal waters of Maine to the western shores of California, artists began to paint what they saw in front of them. Straightforward and with a powerful confidence, their creations caught iconic glimpses of American life.
American Realism was part of this new spirit. Urban landscapes were often scattered with smokestacks from the factories of bustling 20th century industry. A durable and dauntless labor force was depicted working the docks or running the rail yards. An inexact water tower frequently hovered off to the side. In an uptown counterpart, artists portrayed market traders and businessmen advancing on the gray paved streets of commerce.
A moody introspection was also observed in paintings of this genre. Edward Hopper (1882-1967), a prolific painter of the contemplative American, cast lonely narratives of people caught seemingly unaware of their forlorn glances or blank expressions as they occupy the open spaces of their surroundings. It was as though they inhabited a place but lost their attention to it.
Complementing the cityscapes were views of rural and small-town life. Landscapes were filled with an endless expanse of the rolling good earth with colors as clear as the open blue sky. Integrity was hard at work in the message. If you could master the land with might and a measure of American know-how, the bounty could yield an honest living. These depictions were highly stylized in form; expressing vigorous motion with an urgency of much to be accomplished before the sun went down.
At the center of this force was the Midwestern Heartland, a powerhouse of artistic talent, with three key artists – Benton, Wood and Curry, creating and inspiring a generation of American artists who would be known as American Regionalist painters. American art had found its style and conveyed it through a rich panoramic rhapsody of color and composition.
It was, after all, the time of American composer Aaron Copeland’s vigorous Fanfare for the Common Man. And what a celebration it was. Missouri master painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) rendered fanciful, robust depictions of farmers in their wheat fields, strong and proud, larger than life, plowing through nature with their crops crowning the fields of their toil.
Grant Wood (1881-1942), the quintessential Regionalist from Iowa, defined the American agrarian ethos with his icon of the American farmer, American Gothic (1930). The stern portrait of a farmer and his sister, posing in front of a Gothic-trimmed county home, has been praised and parodied ever since. Staring harshly at the viewer with inscrutable regard, it could be America’s Mona Lisa.
In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiated the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and commissioned artists to paint American-themed murals for public viewing in various government institutions. It was an opportunity for artists to be employed and recognized. In small towns and large cities, scenes of men working on farms and in factories, and American historical narratives and leisure activities were installed in courthouses, post offices and libraries. Depicting fishing and farming, playing ball and barn-dancing, artists were making a living documenting America.
Political commentary was also illuminated in many works produced. John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), of Kansas, created much controversy before completion of a series of murals commissioned for the statehouse in Topeka. Curry addressed the volatile pre-Civil War years known as “Bleeding Kansas,” a tense period when settlers clashed over the issue of slavery. The Tragic Prelude was his testament to this struggle. The 10-foot tall mural projects radical abolitionist John Brown’s apocalyptic vision of a country devastated by tornado, fire, violence and impending war painted with a vengeful fury that unsettled Kansas and the American consciousness. Curry was proud of his paintings and became disillusioned when the Kansas legislature prevented completion of the murals. He left the murals unsigned and Kansas behind. He died five years later in Wisconsin. In 1992 Kansas passed a resolution apologizing for Curry’s remonstrance. Today The Tragic Prelude hangs within direct view of the governor’s office.
When Curry settled in Wisconsin he became the first artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture. He joined a thriving community of accomplished painters whose contributions added to a rich tradition of visual art in the state. This tradition began in the late 19th century in Milwaukee as many well-educated emigre artists from Europe sought freedom of expression in the German-populated city. These artists founded and taught in art schools in Milwaukee.
Gerrit Sinclair (1880-1955) was among this assembly and is widely collected in the region. Schooled in the modernist approach at the Art Institute of Chicago, his style is Regionalist with a mere hint of modernism in composition. He presented the common man in his own environment, extolling the value of everyday life and its simple pleasures. In 1920 Sinclair was selected as the first instructor at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee. He continued to teach until 1954, guiding several generations of talent to achievement along the way.
The top Regionalists’ art appears at auction, with works reproduced on paper hitting record highs. In March, Swann Galleries in New York broke records with a collection of 19th-20th century American heavyweights. Among the Regionalists’ work, a Grant Wood lithograph, Approaching Storm (1940), brought $8,625. Thomas Hart Benton’s Wreck of the Ol’ 97, a lithograph from 1944, sold for $12,650.
The WPA’s influence enabled artists in all 48 states plus its possessions, Alaska and Puerto Rico, to pursue careers in the arts. Exceptional works from lesser known artists continue to show up in auctions in the respective artist’s region. Gerrit Sinclair is an example of a Regionalist painter popular in the Midwest. In 2005, Fruit Market and Factories, an oil on board, sold at Treadway-Toomey Gallery in Cincinnati for $2,900. There’s a very good chance that in any given city in America, a WPA artist’s work will turn up at an estate sale, garage sale or antique store.
Mary P. Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 414-453-1620.