America during the 1920s and 1930s was a country in conflict by a failing economy, powerful political figureheads, and waning support for the suffering laboring classes, while simultaneously being immersed in consumerism and modernism. As a result, artists in the Midwest at this time produced artworks that began to focus on common scenes for people living in rural America. These depictions became well known throughout the Midwest, and the Regionalist art movement began with a triumvirate of artists, Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri, John Steuart Curry from Kansas, and Grant Wood from Iowa, leading the way.
Regionalism began in the 1920s, but the height of the movement was not reached until the 1930s. Artists who aimed to establish a connection with the laboring classes of America conducted this movement, which was characterized by democratic stylization. Thus, Regionalism became a realistic art movement, with the subjects of the paintings often being ordinary people alongside those in positions of power. The movement was also a social commentary for how resources were being utilized across the nation at the time, as well as a review of urban and industrial life. Thus, production of Regionalist art moved away from appealing solely to the upper classes, and instead focused upon all levels of American society.
Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri artist most commonly associated with the beginnings of the Regionalist movement, spent most of his childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., where his father served as a representative in the United States House of Representatives. Benton is probably most famous for his murals, examples of which include The Social History of the State of Missouri and The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana. Both of these murals depict the fusion of historical events with those fictional in nature, the laboring classes with upper classes, and examples of controversial issues faced by the states at the time of the creation of the murals. In his pieces, Benton aimed at capturing the interest of the common people, and is quoted as saying, “I love America so well that all its crudities and gross stupidities are no more to me than the little imperfections which give character and individuality to personal beauty…The stuff of this America which I know directly and immediately is to me more important actually and substantially than all the art of the past.” Benton’s prolific career lasted until his death, which occurred in his studio in 1975.
A second Regionalist artist is John Steuart Curry, who was born in 1897 in Kansas, which later proved to be a very influential element in his work. Curry began his artistic education young, at the age of twelve, and eventually ended up at the Art Institute of Chicago. Following his graduation from the Institute, Curry became an illustrator of ‘Wild West’ stories and held the job from 1921until 1926, when his editor harshly criticized Curry for producing works that appeared to be too similar to paintings. Shortly after, Curry became a painter, with the most prolific point of his career being from 1928 to 1932 when he produced many paintings depicting violence or the harshness of nature, especially that of Kansas, such as Hogs Killing a Rattlesnake and The Tornado. Like Benton, Curry was also interested in creating murals, and completed several commissions for the state of Kansas which were very controversial because of subject matter, much like Benton’s had been. When questioned about the iconography of his murals, Curry stated, “I don’t feel that I portray the class struggle, but I do try to depict the American farmers’ incessant struggle against the forces of nature” (Guedon). While he was a native of Kansas and lived in the state for the majority of his life, Curry was less accepted than the other Regionalists in their home states. People distanced themselves from approving of Curry because they believed he purposely chose to portray unappealing aspects of Kansas. Although he never gained the popularity within his state that Benton did, Curry managed to have a relatively successful career until his early death.
The final artist of the Regionalist triumvirate, Grant Wood, was born in Iowa in 1891 and immediately began showing an interest in art from an early age. His educational background is similar to those of the other Regionalists; he was educated at the Art Institute in Chicago, followed by a brief visit to Europe, where he was able to view works by Jan van Eyck, who influenced his later work. Unlike Benton and Curry, Wood had a long career before he became well known. Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of American art, and especially of Regionalist art, American Gothic was the piece that awarded Grant Wood his fame in 1930 when it was first exhibited. This work, which depicts a farmer and his wife, shows what was commonly occurring to farmers during the Dust Bowl; the monetary value of farm property was decreasing, commodity prices were decreasing, and foreclosures were extremely popular. Wood was a major proponent of the movement in which he belonged; he is said to have promoted the ideals of the movement with every opportunity he had and, as Mary Scholz Guedon writes, he is quoted as saying, “Let me try to state the basic idea of the regional movement…when the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow.” Wood’s career ended shortly, as the artist died at the age of fifty. Iowa mourned the passing of the artist, and many of his works became better known after his death, granting Wood posthumous fame within the Regionalist movement.
The Regionalist art movement began in the 1920s and flourished during the 1930s, when American Regionalist artists rejected modernism and industry and instead began producing works that were intended for the general public, citizens of all classes. The movement was comprised of a triumvirate of artists—Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. These artists all used their home states and different classes of people within those states as inspiration, and as an audience, in and for their works. Although the movement was short lived, it produced popular works that are still studied to this day.