Orange County Museum of Art

Newport Beach, CA



In the City: Urban Views 1900-1940


During the first forty years of this century, America was shaken by political and cultural changes more dramatic and fast-paced than any it had previously encountered. As a nation, we experienced the turbulence of World War I and the Great Depression; emerged as a world industrial leader; made astonishing technological advances; and implemented controversial social programs. At the same time, the American city was undergoing a transformation from provincial town to urban metropolis. Great fortunes and luxury coexisted with crowded tenements and streets teeming with a new working class. The bustling life of the city--its shops, offices, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, movies, burlesque shows, markets, and parks--were a never-ending source of inspiration to artists. They responded to the alternating currents of prosperity and depression, optimism and despair, by creating new visions for a country in search of its cultural identity.

left to right: Maurice Prendergast, Central Park, 1901, 1901, watercolor on paper, 15 1/16 x 22 1/8 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; Robert Henri, Blackwell's Island, East River, 1900, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; William Glackens, Parade, Washington Square, 1912, oil on canvas, 26 31 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum

This exhibition, drawn entirely from the Whitney Museum's Permanent Collection, presents the work of artists who, working in a realist mode, documented and explored the many faces of the changing urban environment between 1900 and 1940. Though these works represent many different approaches, collectively they speak to the persistent allure of the city as a source for some of American art's most powerful and significant artistic statements.

left to right: John Sloan, Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914, oil on canvas, 26 x 32 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; Everett Shinn, Girl Dancing, 1905, watercolor and conte crayon on cardboard, 5 3/4 x 7 13/16 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; Abraham Walkowitz, Cityscape, c. 1915, oil on canvas, 25 x 18 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu, 1914, oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum

The American artists who first turned their attention to city life -- John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and George Luks, among others -- came to be known as the Ashcan School for their realistic and honest portrayal of the modern urban environment. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Robert Henri, leader of the informal group, encouraged the artists to paint urban life as they saw it around them in order to break with the sentimental idealism of academic art. He urged them to find new subjects and socially minded themes that would make their art relevant to the new age and the common man. Their efforts mark the beginning of a revitalization of the realist tradition in this country that would continue well into the 1940s. (left: Thomas W. Dewing, Lady in a Green Dress, 1917-19, oil on canvas, 14 1/4 x 13 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum)

The decade following World War I was a time of great national prosperity. Emerging in the postwar years from Europe's political and cultural shadow, Americans were optimistic and confident about the future. At the same time, wary of further involvement with Europe, America turned inward, isolating itself from the rest of the world. In this isolationist context, many artists searched for a mode of expression that would celebrate American values and achievements while remaining distinct from the influences of European culture. (left: Stuart Davis, The Back Room, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 37 1/2 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum)

To explore indigenous themes, some artists turned to the arena of public social life. The postwar era of prosperity had brought an upsurge in leisure activities and popular entertainment. City dwellers came out in droves to attend sports events, vaudeville, and musical reviews. By the later 1920s, jazz and the motion picture had also become widespread forms of entertainment. These pastimes were enthusiastically enjoyed by all Americans, from the working class to high society, and provided a wealth of inspiration to artists such as Mabel Dwight, Guy Péne du Bois, and George Bellows. Although these artists followed the prewar tradition of realism, their works celebrated the new pleasures of city life in dynamic compositions with colorful, bold imagery.

Americans in the 1920s were also captivated by the technological innovations that were changing the landscape of the American city. Elevated trains, modern factories, skyscrapers--all expressed America's love affair with progress and industry. Artists such as John Storrs and Louis Lozowick were particularly inspired by the expressive potential of the skyscraper, whose powerful, sleek lines, geometric forms, and sheer altitude made it the ideal symbol of the modern American metropolis. To convey the energy and dynamism of public spaces, many artists imported aspects of European Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism, but not without translating them into a native idiom, one that interpreted the unique experience of American architecture and urban life. (right: Guy Pene Du Bois, Café Monnot, c. 1928-29, oil on canvas, 22 x 18 1/2 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum)

left to right: Raphael Soyer, Office Girls, 1936, oil on canvas, 26 x 24 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; Reginald Marsh, Ten Cents a Dance, 1933, egg tempera on panel, 36 x 48 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum; Philip Evergood, Through the Mill, 1940, oil on canvas, 36 x 52 inches, Collection of Whitney Museum

The stock market crash of 1929 plunged America into an era of great financial depression and social uncertainty. By 1932 national income had fallen to less than half of what it had been in 1929 and unemployment was at an all-time high. With the blame for America's dire economic condition placed on big business, American labor movements and the Communist Party slowly began to gain power. One group of artists, who came to be known as the Social Realists, fought for social justice and political reform through their works. They continued to record scenes of the city, but now their imagery focused on the harsher realities of the 1930s--on political rallies, unemployment lines, and labor strikes. Isaac Soyer and Benton Murdoch Spruance represented the day-to-day consequences of poverty, unemployment, or the dull, menial jobs through which many earned a meager living. Glenn O. Coleman and Edward Laning depicted the radical political activity taking place in the street as strikes and demonstrations erupted. Gone are the vibrant street scenes and the optimistic mood of the 1920s. Even the dance hall and vaudeville scenes Reginald Marsh painted during these desperate days take on a seedy, slightly sinister air.

In the wake of the Great Depression, a lack of funds for urban maintenance caused the physical condition of American cities to deteriorate, As buildings fell into decay, many artists turned away from idealized views of American streets and skylines. The sense of optimism and progress once epitomized by the skyscraper could no longer be sustained. Instead, artists such as Franz Kline and Edward Hopper focused on less grandiose structures of the city, looking to the tenement houses, apartment buildings, brownstones, and the streets of neighborhood communities to represent their experience of urban life.

Other artists began to reintroduce abstraction into their scenes of Depression-era city life. Jacob Lawrence, among others, painted in a bold, graphic manner, incorporating flattened space and geometricized planes of color, as the most effective means of communicating his universal messages, The Surrealist-inspired imagery of O. Louis Guglielmi and the stark, nearly uninhabited landscapes of artists such as J. Francis Criss use Modernism's bold colors and geometric forms less to celebrate the new structures of the city than to implicate them in the emotional isolation of urban-industrial society.

This exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and its presentation at the Orange County Museum of Art is made possible by the generous support of The Boeing Company, Harold and Sandy Price, Max and Patricia Ellis, Kenneth M. Poovey, Joan and Tom Riach, Elizabeth and John Stahr, Historical Collections Council, Sandy and Bill Beekman, and Maralou and Jerry Harrington.


Read more about the Orange County Museum of Art in Resource Library

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/1/10

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