Art / essay

The Regionalists

The featured image is: Baptism in Kansas, Oil on Canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, John Steuart Curry, 1928.

One of my favorite movements in art history occurred outside the stultifying art elite in the power centers in America and, although not hostile to art trends of the time but simply ignoring them, finding an independent voice among the dominant internationalists, Regionalism brought an inimitable story to an American art movement.

The artists of this movement brought forth iconic images that have become deeply ingrained in the American psyche. You can see some of these images below which you will immediately recognize.

One of my first hand experiences of the regionalists comes from a visit to the Capitol of Kansas in Topeka. Familiar to many Americans is one of the murals by John Steuart Curry. The most famous being the image of John Brown holding a bible in one hand and a rifle in another, on one side the supporters of slavery and the opponents on the other. We see a black American holding a rifle on the Union side and in the foreground the bodies of Confederate and Union soldiers. Even with the divisions of the Civil War, we see the westward movement of the American pioneers.

Tragic Prelude, Oil and Egg Tempura, Kansas State Capitol, Topeka, Kansas, John Curry 1937.

I also purchased a beautiful painting from a Wichita hotel of a women with calla lilies of about 1938. It was very much in the style of Regionalism. Unfortunately, I can not furnish an image here, nor do I remember the name of the artist because it has been a very long time since I had the picture.

At any rate, one of the most famous of the regionalist artists, Grant Wood, supplied us with two pictures of enormous impact among the people of the US.

Self-Portrait, Grant Wood, 1932.
American Gothic, Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Wood, 1930.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Oil on Masonite Panel, The Met, New York City, Grant Wood, 1931.

Besides Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton is one of the most well known of the Regional artists. Benton’s style is so unique that one could spot one as easily as a Salvador Dali surrealist work.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, Thomas Hart Benton, 1970.
The People of Chilmark, Oil on Canvas, Hirschorn Museum, Washington DC, 1920.

Achelous and Hercules, Mural Originally in a Department Store (Harzfeld’s Kansas City), Now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1947.
New York, Early Twenties, Oil on Canvas, 1924.

Of a significant note, Benton was a teacher to Jackson Pollock who, of course, is known for a quite different genre.

Of course, not all regionalists were Kansans (John Steuart Curry), Iowans (Grant Wood) and Missourians (Thomas Hart Benton). Aaron Pyle plied his regionalism out of Nebraska.

Yellow Vase, Egg Tempera, Museum of Nebraska Art Collection, Aaron Pyle, 1960.

Terence Duran is another from Nebraska.

Web Ray, Oil on Canvas, Terence Duran, 1946.

Regionalism is a fascinating and somewhat ignored story in American art history well worth further study. Among those not included in this brief article are Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth who are sometimes included among this group. However, I prefer to include them in a different aesthetic because of where they lived and worked. Rockwell fits more squarely with the great American illustrators who held an important sway in a large section of the 20th century. Wyeth, who was the son of the incredible illustrator, N. C. Wyeth, held a particular part among the 20th century Realists. He is often referred to as a Realist in a Regionalist style but I simply don’t see it since he was not in the same region and was focused on a singular realism he achieved by using egg tempura instead of other media. Also, many of both these artists’ works could refer to anywhere in America, not to a particular region. Regionalism also frequently contained some exaggerations, distortions and unique angles, missing among the realists. So you might judge for yourself, I’ve included the two famous, iconic American pictures below.

Christina’s World, Egg Tempura on Gessoed Panel, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Andrew Wyeth, 1948.
Freedom From Want, Oil on Canvas, Norman Rockwell, 1943.


Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, HBosler, 2010.

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