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Coming Home: American Paintings, 1930­1950, from the Schoen Collection

June 4 - September 6, 2004


The paintings in Coming Home: American Paintings, 1930­1950, from the Schoen Collection depict the sweeping social, artistic, and political transformations that took place during two of the most critical decades in American history. Featuring approximately 60 paintings, Coming Home includes works by such acclaimed painters as Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry; Magic Realist Paul Cadmus; Surrealist Federico Castellon; and Social Realists Ben Shahn and Raphael Soyer. The time period of the exhibition extends from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and proceeds through the years of the Great Depression, concluding with images showing the impact of World War II on the home front. (right: Thomas Hart Benton, Fisherman at Sunset, 1947, gouache on paper, 15 x 21 inches)

During the 1930s and 1940s, many artists turned to subject matter that reflected their experiences of the locales in which they lived and worked. Known as Regionalism or American Scene painting, this trend emerged in all corners of the country, as artists told visual stories about the people in towns, cities, and the countryside who enacted their quotidian lives with heroism, humor, or tenacity in the face of economic hardships.

These artists were often supported by such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its division, the Federal Arts Project (FAP); the Farm Security Administration (FSA); and the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts (SFA). Throughout the 1930s, these New Deal agencies encouraged artists to document the American experience. Many who took part in Federal art programs sought to capture the distinctive characteristics of the country's regions and its people, in ways that could be understood by everyone who saw them. Even artists who received no government support often embraced the idea of an art that would speak directly of people's own lives.

The first two galleries in the exhibition are arranged to represent a visual trip across America. It begins with scenes of New York by Isaac Soyer, Joseph Hirsch, and Eugenie MacEvoy, and then continues with depictions of steamy Southern nights by Charles Shannon and William Hollingsworth; Midwestern farms and farmers by Guy MacCoy and John Steuart Curry; and people living and working in the inhospitable environments of Western deserts and mountains, as shown in paintings by Peter Hurd and Alfredo Ramos Martinez. (right:  Louis Freund, Transcontinental Bus, 1936, oil on panel, 25 x 31 inches)

While the Regionalists sought a distinctively American style and subject matter, artists in the third gallery reflected developments in art beyond the nation's borders. For them, it was less important to convey their experience of their immediate environments than to create beauty or convey a sense of fantasy or mystery. Jessie Arms Botke's exquisite Flamingoes and Lotus (ca. 1939) recalls the influence of Japanese art popular in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century decorative arts. Painted with equal clarity and grace, the Magic Realist artist Paul Cadmus's Shells and Figure (1940) combines a love for the fantastic with a stylistic precision that makes the work seem to have been painted from direct observation. Helen Lundeberg's Poetic Justice (1945) similarly combines the meticulous technique of Northern Renaissance artists with the dream imagery of European Surrealism. Although not prominently featured in the Schoen collection, many of the artists in this section helped pave the way for the generation of Abstract Expressionists that came in the 1940s, who were inspired by the Surrealist goal of giving aesthetic form to the unconscious realm.

The last section of Coming Home is dedicated to works that document the Great Depression and the homefront during World War II. In 1931, a severe and long-lasting drought hit Midwestern and Western states, further intensifying the devastation of the nation's economy incurred by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Millions of Americans suffered unemployment, poverty and the loss of their homes during these years. In the Dust Bowl, crops were destroyed as blinding dust storms swept across the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, western Kansas, and the eastern portions of Colorado and New Mexico. Many people abandoned their farms and traveled the country in search of agricultural work, as dramatized in the classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Like author John Steinbeck, artists William Gropper in The Last Cow (1937), Mervin Jules in Bare Statement (1941), and John Langley Howard in Hooverville (1933) focused attention on the plight of these displaced people through powerful narrative scenes, many of which they had observed firsthand as they traveled through the region.

Other artists, angered by the government's slowness in alleviating the suffering of the homeless and jobless, and by the often brutal tactics of local authorities in their treatment of dispossessed people, were moved to a more activist stance with their paintings. Often members of the political left, Social Realists like Ben Shahn in Unemployed (1938), Henry Billings in The Arrest No. 2 (1936), and William Gropper in The Incumbent (ca. 1938) used their art to expose these injustices, which they believed were contrary to the egalitarian spirit of democracy.

When the nation entered World War II, millions of its citizens found jobs in the defense industry, reducing unemployment and helping to revive the economy. Artists were among the sixteen million Americans who joined the armed forces, often serving as war reporters and correspondents. Those who stayed behind frequently portrayed their countrymen supporting the war effort through factory and farm work. Clarence Holbrook Carter's Good Crop and Isaac Soyer's Defense Plant Worker (both 1942) conclude the exhibition with symbols of strength and hope that portend a new beginning for the nation. (right: Helen Forbes, Mountains and Miner's Shack, 1940, oil on canvas, 34 x 40 inchcs)

As the economy improved, federal relief and patronage were phased out, and artists who had participated in New Deal art programs returned to the private sector or began teaching in colleges and universities across the country. Many of their students were veterans benefiting from a new government program, the G.I. Bill of 1944, which made higher education available to the men and women who had served in the military.



Jason Schoen has vigorously pursued his passion for collecting American art of the 1930s and 1940s for more than 20 years. While he has acquired important examples of Social Realism, abstraction, and Surrealism, Schoen has been most interested in having his collection foster an understanding of the regionalist impulse that appeared in much of the period's art. "A goal of mine," he writes," has been to create a collection of regional art, which can serve as a study collection and an introduction to an era, as a slice of life and a window onto an important period in American history."

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