Lynn Salerno
History of American Art
University of North Carolina
September 11, 1996 (updated October 29, 2005)


The Regionalists as reactionary painters

The art of the American Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood John Steuart Curry contains reactionary elements, both in form and theme. As a movement that focused on depicting "grass roots" themes and realism during the depression years, Regionalism was stylistically opposed to the sophisticated abstraction of "New York Art." The painting by Benton entitled July Hay reveals his strong Midwestern roots and ideals. Grant Woods painting American Gothic shows similar ideals, however Wood's style is more detailed and restrained. John Steuart Curry's work, such as The Homestead and Building of the Barbed Wire Fence, was his interpretation of family life in the Midwest. By focusing on simple, yet significant themes, the Regionalists were able to capture the essence of American life in that era.

Born in Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton was a strong proponent of Regionalism in art. His paintings, such as July Hay 1943 (fig.1), reflected the rugged Midwest lifestyle rather than the cosmopolitan East. Benton's style was more realistic, in opposition to the many abstract styles of art found at that time (such as Tug by Lyonel Feninger, 1941). July Hay shows the everyday activities of the average American, in this case, men harvesting hay. Benton used strong, contrasting colors to express the beauty of the flora and fauna and an asymmetrical composition to express movement in the work.

Another Regionalist, Grant Wood, used his talent for realism in his depictions of the American scene. The famous painting by him entitled American Gothic (fig.2) contains elements reflecting life in the Midwest and its people. The man and woman appear stern and strong, he with pitchfork in hand as she looks off to the right. Wood included a Gothic window behind the pair as a statement of faith and tradition. The work is painted with sharply contrasting tones and hard lighting techniques that give the painting an intense realism. American Gothic could be seen as the painters reaction against the sophisticated and cosmopolitan abstract art of his time.

John Steuart Curry was a Regionalist whose murals, like Benton's, capture the drama and vast power of the Midwestern landscape and its people. In his painting The Homestead and Building of the Barbed Wire Fence, 1939 (fig. 3), Curry depicts the everyday activities of a rural family. The mother and daughter are preparing food in front of their sod hut, while the men build a fence in the background. The land is flat and open, with the wagon and men serving as the main vertical elements in the composition. Curry imparted a feeling of warmth and charm by including such details as chicken in the front yard and the close pairing of the mother and daughter. Curry painted the Midwest in a style that blended realism and sentiment, foregoing the abstract forms of art for a more down to earth style.

All of the Regionalist painters discussed here: Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, explored the people and landscapes of America in unpretentious, yet powerful works of art. Benton's painting July Hay shows the artist's vision of a plenteous Midwestern harvest. The work by Grant Wood entitled American Gothic, clearly revealed his respect for the faith and values of the rural community during the depression era. John Steuart Curry's mural The Homestead and Building of the Barbed Wire Fence is a slice of life depicting the strength and determination of a family on the prairie. The themes and styles of these Regionalist paintings reveal the artists' reactions to, and against, the sophisticated styles of abstract art prevalent in the urban east.



Figure 1. Thomas Hart Benton, July Hay, 1943. Mendelowitz, pg. 420.
Figure 2. Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Mendelowitz, pg. 421.
Figure 3. John Steuart Curry,The Homestead and Building of the Barbed Wire Fence,1939.

Copyright © Lynn Salerno, 1997-2011