Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 12, 2009 with permission of Dr. Howard Wooden, Jr. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact Wichita Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



The Neglected Generation of American Realist Painters: 1930-1948


By Howard E. Wooden


Just over fifty years ago, America was plunged into a deep economic depression, perhaps the worst in the history of the country. It was a depression which would last for a full decade. Industrial development and farm prices declined rapidly and unemployment, with its accompanying pain and devastation, spread throughout the nation. When mortgages were foreclosed, the dispossessed were forced to take refuge in "Hoovervilles". Many of the unemployed sold apples on street corners, and soup kitchens and bread lines were set up to feed the hopeless. With the Bank Holiday, growing labor unrest, the Veterans Bonus march on Washington, a farmers strike and dust storms raging throughout the plains and the southwest, the period stands out as a bewildering nightmare.

The economic crisis transformed the nation throughout the decade of the '30s. Yet in the process, patriotic feelings ran high and some of the most daringly innovative ideas in the nation's history were ushered in. The world of art obviously did not escape the impact, and thus sensitively relates the story of the social and aesthetic changes that occurred.

Although hardships of the '30s were extreme, the image of gloominess which has come down to us from that period is not entirely a valid one. Indeed, in many respects this period was intensely spirited. Americans were often left to their own resources and came to find ways of using the self as the principal vehicle for achieving goals and of maintaining the natural order of life. Confidence in themselves and confidence in each other were essential for existence.

The man who did much to generate that needed confidence and understanding was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His election and inauguration were keyed to the reassuring words of the popular song hit "Happy Days Are Here Again." In his first inaugural address he stated, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself", and on March 12, 1933 -- just eight days after taking office -- he initiated a regular radio series of fireside chats in which he personally spoke to the people of America.

In those days, radio was a vital force in helping to sustain trust in traditional American values. Indeed, in 1930 when the depression struck with full force, more than twelve million American homes were equipped with radios and by the close of the '30s that number had more than doubled. Comedy programs, soap operas and most especially popular songs were important in elevating morale. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" and "Shanty in Old Shanty Town" are, of course, reminiscent of the tragedy of the moment. But most songs that Americans heard and sang were lively and reassuring, songs such as "We're in the Money", "Fit as a Fiddle", and the coffee commercial "Just around the Corner, There's a Rainbow in the Sky". In much the same manner, the movies, whether they depicted great historical sagas, everyday life episodes or dazzling musical extravaganzas, psychologically compensated for otherwise grim existence.

But radio offered something more. For through imaginative sound effects, carefully synchronized with the radio script, radio could readily stimulate the audience to visualize real life events, just as real as what the movie audience could see plainly moving across the theatre screen. In fact, if there was any quality which particularly appealed to the mind and eye of the 1930s, it was the real, if only imagined.

The same interest in the real is found in painting of this period, for mainstream American painting was fully realistic and essentially literal in its treatment and style. The country's mood then was strongly nationalistic and representations of familiar scenes of American life effectively functioned to validate the American tradition and took precedence over any modern aesthetic dogma.

Among the leading painters of the time were the well-known Midwestern regionalists as well as a group sometimes referred to as the Fourteenth Street School who painted the teeming life along Fourteenth Street and Union Square in New York's lower Manhattan. These artists were highly successful and today are well remembered, for although their respective styles differed significantly, they established a painting idiom which an entire generation of younger artists ably prepared themselves to follow. That younger generation reached professional maturity shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, but by that time the mood of the country was drastically changing. An international posture supplanted the nationalistic spirit of the '30s and the economic struggle soon relaxed in the midst of a wartime economy. Simultaneously, the interest in realist art began to wane, giving way to an increasing emphasis on aesthetic aspects of painting, rather than on subject matter alone. It was the younger generation who most felt the traumatic impact of those changes, for it was that generation who ultimately fell out of fashion and who lost an admiring audience. It is the art of that generation which is the theme of this exhibition.

Certain shared characteristics can readily be identified among the members of this younger generation: (1) nearly all were born after 1900 and the majority in the decade before World War I; (2) all received formative training during the late 1920s and 1930s; (3) all were less consciously concerned with the abstract and surrealist influences during the '30s and more concerned with American themes and realist imagery as promulgated by the older generation of rather distinguished artists and teachers under whom they had studied; and (4) the careers of all were in one way or another interrupted by the Second World War; and although many of these artists were prize winners during the late '30s and early '40s, by 1948 their works had largely been superseded by the abstract expressionist trends with far-reaching effects on the future development of their own careers.

Many of these artists are living today, and it is significant that while quite a few have, indeed, won wide recognition and continue to remain actively productive even now, their contributions in style and imagery before 1948 have either been forgotten or are entirely ignored.

This exhibition consists of 106 paintings, including a small selection of nine works by Peggy Bacon, Thomas Hart Benton, Isabel Bishop, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Raphael Soyer, i.e., those artists who took the lead early and whose roles both as teachers and as painters enabled them to transmit the spirit of the realist movement to the younger generation of hopeful followers. The remaining ninety-seven paintings are works by well trained and highly competent representatives of the neglected younger generation.

But the dividing line between the younger group and the generally older and better established generation who served as mentors is in no sense a sharply defined line, and several artists rightly fall in one category chronologically, but in the other category in terms of current professional recognition. For example, Raphael Soyer, born in 1899, and Isabel Bishop, born in 1902, would technically classify as the younger generation, yet both have consistently received much deserving recognition and have been enormously successful throughout their careers to date. On the other hand, Waldo Peirce, born in 1884, and Ernest Fiene, born in 1894, definitely fall chronologically in the period of the older generation, yet they were professional contemporaries of the younger group, and their paintings compare stylistically and thematically with those of the younger group. And like the younger generation, they, too, gained recognition during the mid and late '30s and early '40s but have been seriously neglected and largely forgotten since.

In consideration of the current revival of realism in American painting, this exhibition is of especial interest, for it provides the opportunity to re-evaluate a representative sample of the realist accomplishments of an era too long ignored. Moreover, to observe and study these forgotten works broadens our knowledge of the social milieu which they so clearly reflect and at the same time deepens our insights into the conditions under which social forces alter the course of a widely accepted stylistic idiom. Indeed, the relationship between style and societal dynamics becomes vividly clear when we review the works and careers of many of the artists represented here. But revisiting these splendid but largely forgotten paintings after so many years of neglect is in itself a rare and visually exciting adventure. And it is primarily for the purpose of furnishing the aesthetic pleasure of such an experience that this exhibition is presented at this time.


The American Art Scene: from the Depression to World War II ... and after

The decade of the 1930s was the period of the Great Depression, certainly one of the darkest moments in the history of the United States. The desperate economic struggle felt throughout the entire nation was accompanied by an isolationist and chauvinistic posture which characterized the era as a whole. Coinciding with these developments was the so-called American Scene movement which, perhaps more than any other expression of the decade, clearly reflected the nationalist and isolationist attitudes and, moreover, enlisted a vast body of ex-patriate artists who during the prosperous 1920s had taken residence in Europe but who were forced to return home following the Great Crash of 1929.


Art Awareness in the Early Depression

Surprisingly, the level of art consciousness during the early depression period was considerably higher than might be expected. Statistical data compiled by the American Federation of Arts for the year 1932 showed that "new museum buildings averaged virtually one a month", that gifts and bequests to museum funds totaled more than $5,000,000, and that the sale of art works at auction amounted to $4,000,000.[1] In 1934, under a Carnegie Corporation Grant, a nationwide radio network series in art education, titled Art in America, was initiated by the General Federation of Women's Clubs and organized by the American Federation of Arts.[2]

But the financial circumstances of the nation's artists were far less encouraging, and numerous efforts were put forth during the early '30s to provide assistance and encouragement to the American artists. Broad appeals for the public to fill their homes with fine arts were repeatedly made, as were suggestions that art works be sold through museums and reproductions through department stores. In 1932, the Whitney Museum held its first Biennial exhibition of contemporary American painting and announced that a special museum fund of $20,000 would be used to purchase outstanding works from the show.[3] Also in 1932, Ferargil Galleries in New York City initiated an annual Artists' Relief Exhibition with objects available for sale ranging from $10 to $50.[4] In 1933, a National Committee to Advance American Art was launched for the purpose of protecting American artists from the competition of highly publicized foreign artists.[5] In the same year, the Society of Arts and Sciences organized a project known as the American Painter-Sculptor Foundation for the purpose of raising large sums to be used to advance monies to artists against works submitted to the Foundation for possible eventual sale.[6] Also, in 1933, a Rent-A-Picture Library was opened at the College Art Association headquarters in New York to help provide artists with a steady income.[7] And with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many hotels and restaurants promptly began commissioning artists to execute bar murals.[8] But although such schemes were quite obviously well-intentioned, their effects were at most of short duration and of extremely limited consequence insofar as the real economic needs of most artists were concerned. Indeed, at the time of President Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, nearly 10,000 artists were without any employment whatsoever.


Governmental Patronage of the Arts

In view of the grim hardships and prolonged uncertainties facing the nation as a whole during the early Depression years, unemployed artists as well as many other unemployed groups began to lobby for governmental assistance. That assistance came with the enactment of a multi-phase program of New Deal support early in the Roosevelt administration beginning with the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) late in 1933. Specifically, the primary purpose of the PWAP was to supply work for unemployed but qualified artists in decorating non-Federal public buildings. In every sense, this was an unprecedented measure and although the project itself was essentially experimental, it was nevertheless a fully successful one in that it offered encouragement and gave financial assistance to more than 3700 artists during the six month period of its existence. At the 25th Annual Convention of the American Federation of Arts in May, 1934, the eminent artist George Biddle, a long time personal friend to President Roosevelt and the man generally credited with actually having initiated governmental art patronage, stated "For the first time in our history the Federal Government has recognized that it has the same obligation to keep an artist alive during the depression as to keep a farmer or carpenter alive; but also that art itself is a necessary function of our social life, and must be fostered during the depression and at all times. Like education, science, or hospital service, it is vested with public interest." Emphasizing serviceability rather than vendibility, Biddle concluded that the PWAP "... has made the artist conscious of the fact that he is of service to the community, that he fills a necessary function in our social life."[9]

The PWAP was liquidated in June, 1934 but the tone, both operationally and philosophically, was now set for subsequent governmental patronage programs. In October, 1934, a second program was established, this one known as the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department, more commonly called the Section of Fine Arts or simply "The Section". This program continued until 1943 but unlike the PWAP or the several WPA projects which were soon to follow, its underlying objective was not work relief for artists but simply the governmental employment of competent artists, through competition or in some cases by commission, to execute murals and/or sculptures for newly built Federal buildings. [10]

However, in May 1935, almost a year after the PWAP had been liquidated, the Works Project Administration (WPA) was established and placed in the overall charge of the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator, Harry Hopkins. Under the WPA, two artist relief programs came into being. The first of these, known as the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), functioned to provide work relief by employing artists to produce murals and sculptures for Federal Buildings already in existence. The second which started in the fall of 1935, was the WPA Federal Art Project (FAP), with Holger Cahill as National Director. The WPA/FAP was liquidated in 1943 but during its eight years of existence it was unquestionably the most successful and, from the standpoint of this exhibition, the most far-reachingly significant of all governmental art patronage programs. Under the WPA/FAP, sculptures, murals, easel paintings, prints and posters were produced, community art centers and Federally sponsored art galleries were established, and extensive research was conducted through the Index of American Design. Not only did the WPA/FAP provide economic relief, which obviously was of greatest and most immediate concern, but it was this project which, more than any of the other art programs, brought art to the attention of people and promoted a wide public awareness of art as a meaningful entity in ongoing community life. Indeed, under the WPA, art was regarded as the instrumentation through which shared experiences could be offered and societal coherence achieved. At the same time, it was through the WPA that the artist himself came to achieve a new dignity and social status and to utilize his training and skill as positive means of professional self-development and of contributing to the collective well-being of his own society.

With the WPA/FAP, George Biddle's hopes and predictions were essentially fulfilled. Yet the FAP would probably not have succeeded so fully had it undertaken to exercise rigid control over artists either from the standpoint of style or subject matter. Although realism was certainly the style adopted by most artists for the works of this project, abstraction and surrealism were in no sense ignored. After viewing an exhibition of WPA/FAP art held at the Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, in 1936, F.A. Whiting, Jr., Editor of the American Magazine of Art summarized a persistent attitude concerning WPA artists: "American artists as never before are unself-consciously at home. Artists like everyone else enjoy being wanted, even by so huge an abstraction as a government or a people. Their delight is proportionately keener when no curb is placed on progress experiment by the obliging government. Freedom of this kind exists here as nowhere else on earth."[11] That the program was both appreciated and respected by the artists themselves is well illustrated by the extant artist-testimonies written for inclusion in a report prepared by Holger Cahill for Congress during the late 1930s but never published during the lifetime of the WPA itself.[12] However, perhaps even more indicative are recent testimonies which numerous WPA artists prepared for use in conjunction with an exhibition titled New York City WPA Art and held at the Parsons School of Design in 1977. All of the comments reveal the artists' profound gratitude and their understanding of the times, and a few of those comments by several artists deserve attention here:

Albert Pels:
"The W.P .A. to me and all of the other artists on the Project in the '30s meant being able to continue in our profession. The $21 a week we received as wages was a gold mine. We painted hard and painted what we wanted to paint. Most of us painted the depression and what it meant to America."[13]
Anton Refregier:
"The years I worked on the WPA Art Project were the most meaningful and the happiest of my professional life. I felt a sense of purpose, a closeness to the people with whom we shared our economic plight, a feeling of being needed by them... There was a close comradeship among the artists... We were not degraded by personal opportunism, we were not manipulated by art entrepreneurs, critics nor museums... Together ... we were creating a people's art."[14]
Getel Kahn:
"The timing of the WPA Project was right because there was a need... This art found its way to many areas of the nation which had never experienced such aesthetic pleasures. As another of the outcomes, this country has emerged as one of the foremost leaders in the art world."[15]
Harry Gottlieb:
"The WPA art projects became exciting national and local programs to bring meaningful art programs to institutions and millions of people for many of whom it was a totally new experience."[16]


The American Scene

Basic to the thought of the 1930s was the firm belief that it was the social responsibility of the artist to communicate through a language understandable to the people. On that premise, the most suitable language for the visual artist certainly seemed to be the descriptive language of representational realism which at the opening of the decade took the form of the American Scene movement. And it was in the American Scene idiom which emphasized facts that the artists of the '30s celebrated the virtues of the American way of life.[17]

To a marked degree, the American Scene epitomized the national yearning during the '30s for rediscovering America and for preserving national traditions. Implicit here is a note of nostalgia and escapism, an urge to return to the "golden age" which typified the thinking of the more conservative wing of American Scenists who adopted a kind of anti-urban and anti-industrial outlook and who glorified the simple mode of life close to the soil. This attitude was widespread and took concrete form already in the early years of the Depression. By 1933, Dorothy Grafly, art critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, recognized that "Perhaps in this new trend in art there may exist the prophecy of tomorrow, the general revulsion of mankind against what man has built for himself in an industrial and city-ridden civilization. The feeling of soil, trees, mountains, valleys, rivers is surging back into one's consciousness with a sweep of emotion that is almost nostalgic." [18]

During the 1930s, art was widely regarded as a phenomenon generated by the social environment rather than by the individual artist alone, and as early as 1931, Ernst Jonson, a New York architect, stated "Great art is not created by the individual; it is a social achievement" In essence, this premise typified the guiding philosophy of Holger Cahill, the man who directed the WPA/FAP throughout its entire term from 1935 to 1943.[19]

Closely allied with this point of view was the notion that for art to be democratic and close to the people, it must be flexible stylistically and thematically in order to accommodate the particularistic character of varied locales, whether they be eastern cities, mid-western villages and farms, the western desert, or the southern town. For in reality, the nation itself was a unity of diversity, a unified composite of peoples with differing environments and differing experiences. And inasmuch as the artist was expected to communicate, he must speak visually in a language which he fully understands and which is fully understood by his audience. Thomas Craven, perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the American Scene during the '30s, called art a " ...local phenomenon. It may find its subjects in ideals aiming at universality, but it must treat those subjects as frames for the richer content derived from experience."[20] Craven went on to state "I am interested in art as an activity proceeding from and affecting the lives of men and women. I am, therefore, as much concerned with the environment and the experiences of the artist as with the created object the two are inseparable."[21] Essentially, Craven was voicing attitudes already indelibly impressed on the mind of the period. But that viewpoint expressed itself often in excessively provincial terms, for the extreme nationalist feelings then prevailing sought to avoid foreign entanglements, politically and economically, and in turn were manifested in a distrust and dislike of European culture, especially French art and most particularly Picasso, Matisse, Derain.

Yet Craven's strongly chauvinist attitudes were in no sense universal, and negative critics of the American Scene and its provincialism spoke up without apology. As early as 1931, Samuel M. Kootz in an article in the New York Times headed "America Uber Alles" pungently asked "Why should the present patriotic ecstasy exclude anything but American work ...?"[22] By 1935, numerous critics had begun to condemn the whole American Scene movement. C.J. Bulliet, art critic for the Chicago Daily News, expressed his weariness about the regionalist work of Grant Wood and was even more uncomplimentary about the poor imitations of Grant Wood so frequently found in American exhibitions by the mid-'30s.[23] And indeed the strong emphasis focused on regionalist dictates in particular prompted one artist-critic to warn that "Urging the artist to hold fast to ideals of his tradition by expressing only the life of his 'locale' does not insure unity of purpose in the construction of national culture .... this talk about 'going American' and 'working in locale' is a mawkish idealism which smacks of the axiom that in trying to become something, one becomes nothing."[24]

But more profound differences in the socio-political thought of the Depression produced a liberal wing of the American Scene movement that is clearly reflected in many works of the period. Indeed, although hailed by many Americans as a humane program fully in keeping with the underlying ideals of America, the New Deal and especially the labor legislation that it sponsored were quite often viewed as the product of communist influence within the government. Actually, communist agitation during the early 1930s had less affect either on American society or on American art than is often supposed. However, in consideration of the desperate economic plight of the '30s and the anger and frustration felt by many, it was inevitable that the hope implicit in Marxist ideology would command an attentive audience, if only a small one. Moreover, the New Deal government, with an eye to foreign trade, had recognized Russia diplomatically in 1933, and under the National Industrial Recovery Act labor had won the right to organize and bargain.

Like other groups, some artists discovered strength in unionism and advanced their demands through the Artists' Union, founded in 1933, which functioned as a bargaining agent in pressing for annual Congressional appropriations for the WPA/FAP.[25] That this union was communist inspired or that its members were subversive was an entirely unfounded assumption. Yet Red-baiter suspicions were exacerbated with the establishment in 1936 of the American Artists' Congress, a second union that operated under the banner of "For Peace, Democracy and Cultural Progress."[26] Furthermore, in view of the steady rise of European dictatorships and the potential threat of America's involvement in a foreign war, many American artists had come to perceive Russia as the staunch foe of Fascism and readily allied themselves with the Popular Front. Thereafter their loudly asserted anti-Fascist sentiments were misconstrued to be "pink".

But sympathy with the leftist cause was completely shattered when in 1939 the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression Pact was signed. Resurgent interest in Russia came only after Hitler's surprise invasion of Russia in July, 1941, resulting in Russia's joining with the Allies in the Second World War.

Although it goes almost without saying that some few artists might well have been affiliated directly with the communist cause during the '30s, their socialist persuasions and anti-Fascist sentiments cannot be regarded as demands for radical revolutionary change, but rather simply as appeals for economic equity within the existing democratic framework.

Those artists who pressed their demands through labor unions and who frequently talked of an American proletariat, depicted the working class and commented on social and economic inequities in the broadest sense, are generally known as social-realists, a term used to differentiate them from the more conservative regionalists of the American Scene. Together their works reflect two different philosophic approaches toward attaining much the same ultimate goal: one by restoring the nation to its former state of simplicity, the other by reshaping the nation through the elimination of existing abuses. For both, the objective was always to preserve traditional American values of freedom and government by the people.

It is understandable that some artists, such as John Steuart Curry, were regionalists to the core while others, such as Raphael Soyer, were predominantly social realists. However, it is not surprising that frequently one and the same artist could produce both regionalist and social realist inspired works. The Harvest and We Demand by Joe Jones well illustrate the point, for the difference between the two wings of the American Scene was not so much a collision of values as it was a matter of seeking the same end through different means.

One other tendency of the period must rightfully be acknowledged although it was never in the ascendency during this time and in fact lies clearly outside the American realist movement. This, of course, was the interest in avant garde art which had its own admiring audience even though from 1930 on, supporters of the American Scene often avowed "modern" art to be insane and repeatedly predicted that the avant garde - and especially Picasso - was waning and would soon vanish. One extremely prestigious New York gallery during the early '30s adopted the advertising slogan "All that is Sane in Art". Nevertheless, New York's Museum of Modern Art had been founded as early as 1929 and flourished well during the 1930s, and many American surrealists and abstractionists, such as Stuart Davis, Balcomb Green, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko, were active during this period, often working under the aegis of the WPA. Yet the dominance of the American Scene movement with its guiding credo of art for the people reinforced the prevailing American aversion to the avant garde which proclaimed a contradictory doctrine of art for art's sake. What ultimately came to be known as 'contemporary art' would win wide support only at a much later date.

But the American Scene, although it remained a realist movement throughout its hegemony, never evolved a specifically definable style. Certainly inspirational sources can be identified but they cover a wide spectrum. At one extreme are the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque, especially Rubens and El Greco; the 17th century Flemish and Dutch realists such as Breughel and van Ostade; and, of course, the contemporary Mexican muralists who played a positive role in the actual development of the American mural program. At the other extreme are such early 19th century caricaturists as Daumier and Thomas Rowlandson; American and European primitives; and, of course, the American comic strips. In subject matter, American Scene paintings celebrated the everyday doings of people in cities or on farms. Some works satirized regional idiosyncracies, others sometimes vehemently protested against unemployment or unfair employment practices. Narrative illustration and literal objectivity far surpassed individual sentiment or subjective mood. But whether the stylistic treatment was loose and open or tight and closed, and whether the forms were swollen and expressively distorted or presented with classically sculpturesque precision, what counted most in all of these works was the force of statement. To an aesthetically sophisticated audience, often preferring the Old Masters or the modern French, such paintings might have been ridiculed. But to the popular audience, the group appeal generated by realistically rendered American themes was enormous. For in this deeply depressing moment of the '30s when self-doubt more often than not dominated the minds of so many Americans, the artist's work, whether urban or rural in inspiration, was an effective humanistic effort to bolster self-esteem and public confidence in the validity of the American system.


The Approach of War

At the close of the '30s, what was looked upon as one of the greatest extravaganzas in the history of art exhibitions took place in New York City with the World's Fair exhibition, "American Art Today". Twenty-five thousand paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings had been submitted for review by eighty-six professional artist-jurors including such names as Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, Philip Evergood, Max Weber, Eugene Speicher and others. But space limitations at the Fair allowed only 1214 works to be shown, many of which were rotated throughout the duration of the exhibition.

Donald J. Bear, Director of the Denver Museum and art critic for the Denver Post, served as Assistant Director of the Fair. In reporting on the exhibition, Bear recognized certain broad tendencies which have particular relevance to the premises on which the present exhibition here at the Wichita Art Museum is based. First it was clear that "Neither regionalism nor the American Scene can be used as a generalization to describe the present exhibition". Moreover, the styles had changed and Surrealism and Abstraction occupied considerable attention of many of the artists showing. And while realism still remained the dominant force, it was "... a type of realism which is interpretative and psychological..."[27]

Finally, Bear emphasized "...the inclusion of a great number of works by younger artists whose ages range from twenty to the middle thirties...", that is, artists born shortly after 1900. And in connection with that younger generation he commented that "...these are the people who are helping to keep alive the spirit of individual expression so necessary to the American people. Had it not been for the government's art projects, the general decentralization of much of matured artistic talent through the country, and the conservative thoughtful liberalism of many of our older artists, the younger ones would not have had the opportunity to realize so swiftly the results of their expanding talent."[28]

The Fair had placed the American artists in the dynamic swing of the "World of Tomorrow" and was well received by both artists and critics as well as by the public as a whole. But the big question that was asked in the closing years of the decade was "Is there an American Art?" Critics in London and Paris believed there was no American Art, after viewing an exhibition assembled by the Museum of Modern Art held at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Many American critics felt otherwise. To Edward Alden Jewell, art critic of the New York Times, the answer was clear though his arguments merely reflected the lingering chauvinistic attitudes of the entire decade "...we have always had an American art (and) we shall continue to have an American art ... as long as America continues to be a social entity in the brotherhood of nations."[29] Not even all American critics agreed with this conclusion, but as a whole, it was the general consensus that America was rapidly approaching a renaissance in art -- that American realism had not only taken firm root, but also that aesthetically it was steadily evolving upward, and that the second generation of realists then appearing would carry it on to new heights of glory. That there was an American art -- as "American as corn pone and dude ranches" in the words of Peyton Boswell, Jr., editor of Art Digest -- was a certainty in the minds of many.[30] And such optimism about the future of American realism seemed fully justifiable. Had there not been strong support to assist artists and subsidize American art throughout the '30s, especially through the WPA? Had not the artist gained steadily increased prestige through such successful museum competitions as the Carnegie International and the Whitney Annual? Had not the rise of commercial galleries, many focusing exclusively on American art, promoted sales opportunities and demonstrated assured professional and financial support - galleries such as Midtown, Downtown, Grand Central, Kraushaar and Maynard Walker, to mention just a few? And most recently, had not the 1939 New York World's Fair reinforced such optimism by presenting the American artist in the reassuring context of the "World of Tomorrow?" How understandable then for a critic such as Peyton Boswell, Jr., in his 1940 book, Modern American Painting, to declare bluntly "The first flush of the American Scene has passed. Today, among America's best artists, the matter of painting a subject local to the artist has become an accepted freedom and they are going into the newest development of contemporary American painting, a concern for what we shall call Pure Art. ... Our painters are no longer strumming outworn melodies; they are searching the higher rhythms, the new dynamics. They are creating, at last and on a wide scale, an art in harmony with the American Spirit, in tune with the American way of life." [31]

In using the term Pure Art, Boswell was in no sense referring to non-objective abstraction. Instead what he did mean was simply that at the close of the '30s artists were focusing attention on aesthetic dimensions -- texture, form, color organization and paint quality -- as well as on traditional subject matter. Changes of this order had definitely taken hold by 1940 and critics as a whole, in commenting on national exhibitions, referred to color harmonies and a trend toward imaginative qualities and in general a stronger emphasis on formal and emotional elements than on subject treatment alone. In essence, this meant that the artist was apparently projecting himself into his paintings, emphasizing his own individualism and introducing subjective qualities into his work, a tendency which in a very real sense was in direct contradistinction to the social and collectivistic objectives preached so vehemently by critics of the earlier '30s.[32] In addition it was evident by the end of the '30s that some American artists were becoming increasingly conscious of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, features which appeared in their works both during the war years and, even more, during the post war period.


The War Period

Then at the close of 1941, America entered the war. As we have seen, stylistic changes had become increasingly apparent as war approached. Such highly subjective expressions as loneliness and disillusionment, often evoking a mood of disquietude, appeared in painting. Concomitantly, semi-abstract, abstract and surrealist works became more common, and also more readily accepted by the American public. However, for the time being, American Scene realism remained dominant. But during the war, the American Scene itself extended well beyond the shores of America and into foreign lands. Under the direction of the War Department, war artist units were formed in 1943 to paint battle scenes, field and base hospitals, sketches of soldiers and foreign natives on such war fronts as Tunis, Iceland, the Pacific and other zones.[33] Similarly, Life Magazine commissioned artist-correspondents to record their impressions of war and its effect on people.[34] Earlier in the war, Abbott Laboratories had commissioned a group of American artists to produce a collection of paintings depicting medical activities in the Army and Navy that was subsequently circulated to museums across the country.[35]


The Post War Period

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the final days of the war in 1945, the promised and long awaited renaissance of American Scene painting failed to arrive. Instead, the transformation which had been underway over the previous five or so years became markedly apparent. In a 1947 Art Digest editorial, Peyton Boswell, Jr. acknowledged that the new direction stylistically was on the "mechanics of painting rather than on the subject matter of genre illustration."[36] Certainly interpretation supplanted visual fact alone, a tendency which had already been in evidence as early as 1939 and 1940. Several trends in particular were obvious: one, that painting had shifted to the left somewhat, and another that religious, fantastic and other "escapist" themes were appearing recurringly, and that the artist was becoming increasingly concerned with "new inventions".[37]

The war itself had, of course, left its mark and in 1946 the top prize in the Pepsi Cola contest was awarded to Boris Deutsch of California for a timely painting titled What Atomic War Will Do to You, a work which, because of its dramatic portrayal of terror and destruction was called the "best hated picture in the country today."[38] Actual experience had furnished a terrifying grasp of the meaning of atomic destruction. And the eroding effects of a mechanized world on human existence and individual identity coupled with ongoing disagreements in the U.N. prompted anxiety and disenchantment. Reality could no longer be judged by the eye alone. The major stylistic swing for the future would inevitably be in the direction of surrealism and abstraction.

By this time the government played essentially no positive role in the support of the arts. The WPA had already been phased out by 1943. And although from the mid-'30s through the mid-'40s there was much talk about the possible establishment of a Federal Department of Fine Arts with a cabinet post to represent the nation's artists, no such plan ever materialized. Professional artists then organized Artists Equity for the purpose of expanding and protecting their economic interests and of improving conditions for exhibiting and marketing their works.[39]

During this post war period, business patronage of the arts grew considerably and tended to perpetuate wide interest in representational subject matter. Through color illustrations produced by Life Magazine, the works of American artists were widely publicized.[40] At the same time, IBM, the Upjohn Company and Encyclopaedia Britannica developed extensive and significant collections of contemporary American representational painting.[41] In 1945, Upjohn used its collection in conjunction with an educational health campaign consisting of a series titled "Your Doctor Speaks". Advice on menopause, pregnancy and the care of the child suffering from rheumatic fever were among the messages presented through some of the finest realist paintings produced during the period.[42] The Britannica collection was begun in 1943 and ultimately included 135 American paintings, many of which were made available publicly on a rental basis and eventually were distributed among museums.[43]

Business patronage also took the form of corporate sponsored annual art competitions. The most important certainly was the annual Pepsi Cola Show inaugurated in 1944 and continuing through 1948. Another was the La Tausca exhibition sponsored by La Tausca Pearls Company beginning in 1946.[44] But even in these competitions, it was evident that painting in the post war period had shifted away from traditional American realism and more in the direction of surrealism and abstraction.

In the Whitney Annual of 1946, critics commented on the relatively few representational works shown. By that year most critics willingly conceded that the American Scene as it was once known had essentially vanished. For by now, the isolationist spirit of the '30s had been replaced by strong internationalist sentiments, and painting had gravitated stylistically to an international language of abstraction. Yet abstraction quickly came to be regarded as so far removed from any possible comprehension by the people that it must depend more upon words than upon paint in order to be appreciated -- a stinging claim which more than a quarter of a century later would find expression in Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word.[45] To the claim of incomprehensibility was soon added the criticism of poor craftsmanship and in an article in Harper's in 1948, Lincoln Kirstein stated, "What painting lacks today is what bad painting always lacks; adequate intellectual capacity and manual skill."[46]

Indeed by now, American realism was being ignored increasingly as much public attention was given, if only negatively, to abstract and surrealist statements. In 1946, the question of contemporary art became entangled in the reactionary political climate that was evolving, and before long the American government and wide segments of the American art world came into direct conflict over an issue strenuously opposed by artists, critics and museum and gallery directors alike. That issue centered around two exhibitions of modern paintings assembled by the State Department and sent to Europe and South America on international good will tours. Both tours were recalled in 1947 when conservative members of Congress supported by open criticism from the Hearst Press branded the art Communistic.[47] Not long afterwards a ruthless public attack on modern art was made by a U.S. Congressman, Representative George Dondero of Michigan, who in 1949 advocated Congressional censorship of contemporary American artists, alleging the artists themselves to be subversive agents of Moscow and their art to be corrupting communistic influences.[48] This action was, of course, one of the earliest manifestations of the McCarthy witch hunt which was to follow throughout the early 1950s.


Plight Of The Neglected Generation

But while developments affecting the arts during the post war period were numerous, perhaps the one most directly relevant to this exhibition concerns the impact which the decline of the American realist movement had on the second generation of artists who had prepared themselves during the 1930s to follow in the footsteps of their teachers and perpetuate the realist tradition as it had taken form during their formative years. These were the artists who had caught the attention of critics and museum curators and directors during the late '30s and early '40s before the war and especially at the World's Fair in 1939. Then they were thought to be the rising stars on whom the future of American painting would depend. Now, on returning to a post war world just five years later, they found a changed American society in which American realism had no place. For as we have seen, the American Scene had steadily waned since 1939 and 1940, contrary to the expectations of the more optimistic critics of the time. Contributory to this was the immigration of many European artists in the years just prior to the war, the arrival of foreign dealers who promoted the European avant garde movements soon after 1945, and the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism just following the war. The milieu had changed and the vast majority of an entire generation of relatively young American realists who had reached professional maturity, now found themselves without a viable audience. Many turned to commercial art or book illustration. Others went into college and university teaching. Some attempted to adopt the "new mode" and in so doing many experienced tragic failure. Others gravitated to fields entirely unrelated to art. Both their works and, in many cases, their names have been entirely forgotten. They are the neglected generation on whose paintings the current exhibition is built.


Reference Notes

[1] Art Digest, 7:9, 1933 (Feb. 1); p. 28

[2] American Magazine of Art, 27:9, 1934 (Sept.); p. 2

[3] Art Digest, 7:5, 1932 (Dec. 1); p. 4

[4] Art Digest, 9:5, 1934 (Dec. 1); p. 31

[5] Art Digest, 7:17, 1933 (June 1); p. 7

[6] Art Digest, 7:7, 1933 (Jan. 1); p. 10

[7] Art Digest, 7:20, 1933 (Sept. 1); p. 21

[8] Art Digest, 8:4, 1933 (Nov. 15); p. 19

[9] American Magazine of Art, 27:9, 1934 (Sept.: part 2); pp, 31-32: "Proceedings of the 25th Annual Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Washington, D.C., May 14, 15 and 16, 1934."

[10] See Francis V. O'Connor (ed.), The New Deal Art Projects: An Anthology of Memoirs, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1972; and Francis V. O'Connor, Art for the Millions, New York Graphic Society, Boston, 1975. Also see Francis V. O'Connor, "A History of the New Deal Art Projects: 1933 to 1943" in Art for the People-New Deal Murals on Long Island, The Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University, Hampstead, Long Island, New York, 1978; pp. 10 ff.

[11]. "New Horizons", American Magazine of Art, 29:8, 1936 (Aug.); p. 493

[12] Francis V. O'Connor, Art for the Millions, op. cit.; pp. 47 ff

[13] Exhibition catalogue, New York City WPA Art, NYCWPA Artists, Inc., 1977; p. 70. Also see in particular the essay by Emily Genauer, "WPA Influences", pp. v-vii

[14] ibid., p. 73

[15] ibid., p. 46

[16] ibid., p. 36

[17] See Forbes Watson, "The Return to the Fact", American Magazine of Art, 29:3, 1936 (March); pp. 146 ff. For the most complete analysis of American Scene painting see Matthew Baigell, The American Scene: American Paintings of the 1930's, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York, 1974 Also see Nancy Heller and Julia Williams, The Regionalists, WatsonGuptill Publications, New York, 1976. For a survey of the entire period see Charles C. Alexander, Here the Country Lies, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1980.

[18] Quoted in "Artists as Prophets", Art Digest, 7:10, 1933 (Feb. 15); p. 6

[19] Art Digest, 6:2, 1931 (Oct. 15); p. 28

[20] Thomas Craven, Modern Art, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1934; p. 355

[21] ibid., p. 369

[22] Art Digest, 6:7, 1932 (Jan. 1); p. 7

[23] Art Digest, 9:10, 1935 (Feb. 15); p. 3

[24] Peppino Mangravite, "The American Painter and His Environment", American Magazine of Art, 28:4, 1935 (April); pp. 198 ff.

[25]Lincoln Rothschild, "Artists' Organizations of the Depression Decade" in Francis V. O'Conner, A History of the New Deal Art Project, op. cit.; pp. 198-221

[26] Peppino Mangravite, "Aesthetic Freedom and the Artists' Congress, American Magazine of Art, 29:4, 1936 (April); pp. 234 ff.

[27] Art Digest, 13:17, 1939 (June 1); pp. 20 ff.

[28] ibid., p. 21

[29] Art Digest, 12:20, 1938 (Sept. 1); pp. 5 & 6

[30] Peyton Boswell, Jr., Modern American Painting, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1940; p, 90

[31] ibid., p. 63 & p. 90

[32] See Holger Cahill, "American Resources in the Arts" in Francis V. O'Connor, Art for the Millions, op. cit.; pp. 33-34

[33] Art Digest, 18:15, 1943 (May 1); p. 13

[34] Art Digest, 18:7, 1944 (Jan. 1); p. 9

[35] Art Digest, 19:16, 1945 (May 15); p. 12

[36] Art Digest, 21:9, 1947 (Feb. 1); p. 7

[37] Art Digest, 21:6, 1946 (Dec. 15); pp. 5 ff.

[38] Art Digest, 21:1, 1946 (Oct. 1); pp. 9 & 10; and Art Digest, 21:7, 1947 (Jan. 1); p, 7

[39] Art Digest, 21:13, 1947 (Apr. 1); p, 7

[40] See Alan D. Gruskin, Painting in the USA. Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1946; pp. 166 ff. and pp. 183 ff; and Art Digest, 17:15, 1943 (May 1); pp. 5 ff.

[41] ibid. pp. 183 ff., and Art Digest, 19:13, 1945 (Apr. 1); pp. 21-48

[42] Art Digest, 20:4, 1945 (Nov. 15); pp. 17 ff.

[43] Grace Pagano, The Encyclopaedia Britannica Collection of Contemporary American Painting, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1946

[44] Art Digest, 21:7, 1947 (Jan. 1); p. 7

[45] American Artist, 13:1, 1949 (January); p. 3, and Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, Bantam Books, New York, 1975

[46] Lincoln Kerstein, "The State of Modern Painting", Harper's Magazine, 197:1181, 1948 (Oct.); p. 48. Also see American Artist, 13:2, 1949 (Feb.); pp. 37 ff.

[47] Art Digest, 21:14, 1947 (Apr. 15); p. 7; Art Digest, 21:15, 1947 (May 1); p. 7; Art Digest, 21:16, 1947 (May 15); p. 7; Art Digest, 21:20, 1947 (Sept. 15); p. 32

[48] American Artist, 13:7, 1949 (Sept.); p. 3; and Dorothy Grafly, "Weathervane", American Artist, 13:8, 1949 (Oct.); pp. 38 ff.

About the author

Howard E. Wooden, Sr. began his career in art in the 1960's, teaching art history at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He was the director of the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Ind., from 1967 to 1975, when he became the director of the Wichita Art Museum. He remained there until he retired in 1989. He was the author of The Art of the Great Depression, a book of the paintings and sculpture of the 1930's, published by the Wichita Art Museum.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 12. 1009 with permission of Dr. Howard Wooden, Jr. The permission was granted to TFAO on December 18, 2008. Mr. Wooden, Sr.'s essay pertains to The Neglected Generation of American Realist Painters: 1930-1948, which was on view at the Wichita Art Museum from May 3 through June 14, 1981.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Dr. Howard Wooden, Jr. and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

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