American Regionalism involved a style of realistic painting that started in the 1930s, becoming popular during the Great Depression. The most popular subjects of American Regionalism were rural and everyday situations. This movement was not inspired by a manifesto or particular agenda and was instead inspired by three artists, being Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry who were known as the “Regionalist Triumvirate.” They rejected abstract work, responding to cultural isolation that saw art as out of touch with the American spirit. They felt unsatisfied with American art as they felt it lacked style and a proper audience. Wood wrote a letter home saying “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.”
Book – Formations of Identity: Society, Politics and Landscape, by Martin, Floyd and Yanoviak, Eileen (2016)
Whilst reading this book, I came across some information about Grant Wood which I felt was relevant as he was one of the three main artists who inspired American Regionalism.
Information I got from the book:
‘Grant Wood created a series of agricultural landscapes in the 1930s to portray his romantic vision of man’s relationship with cultivated land. He created paintings and prints to make the farm and the farmer a fantasy. The result of these mythic landscapes is Spring Turning, a representation of green hills painted in 1936. In the painting, the land has been divided into four fields for cultivation. In the lower field, a farmer drives a team of horses pulling a plow as he turns over the earth. He is dwarfed by the hills that surround him. Previous scholars have focused on the sexual nature of the rolling hills in Spring Turning—Wanda Corn, for example, sees the fertile body of a Mother Earth figure, while Tripp Evans sees the erotic contours of a man’s form.
What has not been previously examined, however, is that Spring Turning, and indeed all of Wood’s farm scenes, were responses to specific local and regional conflict: severe economic depression, agricultural catastrophes, political unrest, and anxiety about the farmer’s place in a country in crisis.Wiped clean of dirt and disorder and marked by a stylized geometry, these landscapes are highly constructed objects drawn from the artist’s memory, his attempts at myth-making, and his desire to control a world under threat. Wood’s work as an artist is closely associated with the figure of the mid-western farmer and the land he inhabited. Though the artist was himself a Midwesterner and the son of a farm family, his first subjects were simple Impressionist-style landscapes that rarely included farms.
Over time, Wood began to champion his favoured subjects—farmers and the land—and develop the style and approach to landscapes that communicate the almost mythic values and virtues that he saw in Midwesterners on the land. He was the son of a strict Protestant farmer who discouraged his artistic tendencies. Unlike his repressive father, Wood’s mother encouraged him in his interests, and he began drawing, painting, and designing jewellery in high school. After graduation, he attended design schools in Minneapolis and Chicago, supporting himself in his twenties and thirties as a designer and teacher and painting in his spare time.
Wood came to see his fellow Iowans and their landscape as topics worthy of his artistic attention only after his early experiments in Impressionist-style painting met with disappointment.4 Wood painted in this retardative mode for nearly twenty years in the early twentieth century, but this aspect of his work is little known now.
Although he worked mainly as an Impressionist in the 1920s, he experimented with other styles during this period as well. Wood’s work underwent a more significant change in style in 1928 when he encountered the work of Northern Renaissance artists in Germany. He had accepted a commission to design a stained-glass window for the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial. Although he had never worked in the medium before, he took on the project with enthusiasm, even traveling to Munich to oversee the production of the glass. The trip had a profound effect on him. While in Germany, he visited museums, where he found inspiration in portraits by artists such as Hans Memling. Their style and subjects influenced a new direction in his art. Upon his return to Cedar Rapids, he abandoned Impressionism in favour of the hard-edged styles he had experimented with.
‘Woman with Plants’ is a portrait of Wood’s mother in which he adopted Memling’s practice of setting his figures in landscapes painted from a high bird’s-eye perspective, with intricate details in the background. In addition, the work of the Northern Renaissance artists convinced Wood that local imagery—the landscapes and people of his native Iowa—was rich material for his art. This new focus on local subject matter aligned Wood with the movement called Regionalism. In the early 1930s, Regionalism, defined by art historian Matthew Baigell as “art created from local traditions,” was at the height of its popularity.
After the surge of interest from American artists in European art in the early twentieth century and into the 1920s, Regionalism represented a new inward focus in the country during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Rather than being influenced by avant-garde artists from Europe who experimented with innovative styles such as Cubism or Surrealism, Regionalist artists sought to portray the experiences of ordinary people in an easily readable visual style. They looked to the Midwest and the South for subject matter and narratives.
Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic encapsulates the aesthetic and cultural goals of the Regionalists, and it was the first of Wood’s paintings to receive national attention. The painting depicts an Iowa farmer and a woman who may be his wife or his daughter. American Gothic was then, and is still today, an enigmatic painting: Is it a tongue-in-cheek but affectionate portrait of staid Midwesterners? Is it, perhaps, an indictment of repressive mid-western values? Historian R. Tripp Evans contends that it is the intriguing ambivalence at the heart of the work that holds the key to its appeal.’
In 1930, American Gothic won third prize at a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. It remains in the collection of that institution today, and it is among the best-known American paintings in the world. After the success of American Gothic, Wood invested many of his character studies with a decided satirical edge.
Information I got from video above:
“American regionalism or American scene painting as it sometimes called is a naturalist style of painting and art that was popular in the first half of the 20th century. The artists of the movement will depict scenes of typical American life and landscape painted in a naturalistic descriptive style. American scene is an umbrella term for the rural American regionalism and the urban and politically oriented social realism. After World War One many United States artists rejected the modern trend stemming from the armoury show in part as a reaction to the war. Oftentimes when we see war we will see far more conservative movements following that war and then things will develop. From there we get to the next war we end up with the same thing a little more conservative and then redevelopment once again and we see the same thing but around World War One as we do around World War Two so instead they adopt an academic realism in depicting urban and rural scenes. Much of the American scene painting conveys a nationalism in romanticism of everyday American life, they’re trying to create something that reflects the American life of everywhere between New York oftentimes and as an anti-modernist style and reaction against the modern European style, this American regionalism was seen as an attempt to define a uniquely American style of art. As soon as we’ve seen the armoury show in precisionism and surrealism and the Americans are starting to get involved in all these movements, all these basically modern movements we see this reaction so we’re pushing back to a more conservative and more realist movement in this case. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just one of these cycles that we see in our history and it doesn’t mean that we can sit there and look at history and go I can predict what’s coming next as that’s foolish . There’s always something that you wouldn’t expect at the time but it does give us a general idea so if you’re looking at a painting you can kind of start to date it based on realism versus abstractions.” – what is said in the video above.
How American Regionalism is inspiring my project:
I was encouraged to research into American Regionalism by my peers during my crit as my work has a great portrayal of real life, you can tell the areas that I have focused on if you have been there before, Leicester is easily identifiable in my work. I found it very interesting to look into this style as I have heard of it before but didn’t know too much information about it. In particular, I find the buildings behind the figures in Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ very similar to some of the architecture I am focusing on in my project, with a sense of realism yet still being abstract.