American Scene Painting
Urban Realism Art Movement Illustrating Rural and Small-town America.

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House by the Railroad (1925)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By Edward Hopper.

American Scene Painting (c.1925-45)

American Scene Painting is a vague term which describes a style of realism which grew up in the United States during the late 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which was marked by its use of specifically American imagery. The aim of this school of American art was to chronicle, if not exalt, rural and small-town America. But first, some background...

1900-14: A New Form of Urban Realism

America during the period 1900-14 witnessed the emergence of a new generation of 20th century painters, bent on replacing the established names like Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Whistler (1834-1903) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910). A number of these new painters were interested in creating a new type of down-to-earth art that reflected living conditions in cities across America.

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At the heart of this urban realism movement was a loose-knit group of New York painters, later to be nicknamed the 'Ashcan School', who were inspired by the artist Robert Henri (1865-1929) and his philosophy that art could not be separated from life. The four leading figures of the Ashcan movement were William Glackens (1870-1938), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953) and John French Sloan (1871-1951). Together with Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) and Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924), they formed 'The Eight', a short-lived group begun by Henri in 1908.

Although Ashcan School painters depict the authentic feel of 1900s New York City, with its drunks, prostitutes, crowded tenements, boxing rings, and bars, they were much less unconventional than they appeared. Brought up in the 19th century, rather than the 20th century, they focused more on the picturesque aspects of their canvases than the social issues they raised. These Ashcan School painters were important forerunners of American Scene Painting.


Widening Gap Between American and European Art

If American art was witnessing a higher degree of urban realism - to add, it must be said, to the scenic frontier realism of the Hudson River Valley School, its child Luminism, and the cowboy imagery of Frederic Remington (1861-09) - European painting was becoming less and less realistic.

Then came the famous New York Armory Show of 1913, otherwise known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art. This art show attracted huge numbers of visitors (between 250,000 and 300,000 saw the show) and no little controversy. European 20th century modern art, which made up the largest section of the show, was too abstract and too unconventional for most Americans, and angry crowds threatened to burn some of the more extreme examples. The organizers of the show were the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, whose plan was to showcase works by contemporary American artists, using famous-named European painters as a lure. In this, they were quite successful, even if the main spotlight remained firmly on the controversial Europeans.

Desire For American Art

The disintegration of Europe into a bloody, futile war, which was only brought to a close by the arrival of a million American soldiers, was followed by a decade of European squabbles. This, together with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and The Depression of the 1930s, provided more than enough ammunition for isolationist Americans to turn their backs on European art in favour of a genuine American style. Furthermore, European abstract art movements like Suprematism, Constructivism, Dada, De Stijl, The Bauhaus School and Surrealism were making enemies among American collectors who as a result were becoming highly reluctant to move beyond Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

For an explanation of modern works representing movements like American Scene painting, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

American Scene Painting - Characteristics of a Broad Movement

The mood in favour of a realist style of art which embraced specifically American imagery - that is, American Scene Painting - developed gradually throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It was not an organized movement, merely an element of the tendency of American painters to avoid abstraction and experimentalism during the inter-war years. For US collections which include examples of American Scene Painting, see: Art Museums in America.

Precisionist Painters

An early example of American Scene Painting was Precisionism - an American art movement comprising a loosely associated group of painters, which flourished during the interwar period, especially the 1920s. Although lacking a manifesto and (until 1927) a name, its members were associated through their common style of precise realist painting: a style marked by a focus on the American industrial landscape which it invested with an epic grandeur. Leading Precisionist painters included Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Joseph Stella (1877-1946), George Ault (1891-1948), Ralston Crawford (1906-78), and Niles Spencer (1893-1952). The main importance of Precisionism was its positive use of strictly American imagery - a sort of updated urban equivalent of the 19th century frontier landscape paintings of Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and others.

Burchfield and Hopper

The most famous exponents of American Scene painters are Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Burchfield's depiction of the bleakness of rural and small-town vernacular architecture, along with Hopper's troubling urban genre-paintings, conveys an inescapeable sense of loneliness and despair. In general, Hopper's landscape structures were also too 'silent' for comfort - see, for instance, House by the Railroad (1925, Museum of Modern Art) and Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929, Metropolitan Museum) - but see also his urban landscape Nighthawks (1942, Art Institute of Chicago). Even so, American Scene painting embraces a good deal more than the work of these two artists.

Regionalist Painters

Regionalism was the midwest branch of American Scene Painting. In comparision with the rather depressing pictures of Burchfield's small towns and Hopper's urban environments, Regionalist painters exuded optimism and nostalgia. Some critics have compared Regionalism with the Stalin-inspired Socialist Realism: both movements supposedly sought to idealize their country. However, the comparison is quite trivial: Socialist Realism was nothing less than state sponsored political propaganda. The most prominent Regionalist artists included Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), and Grant Wood (1892-1942) (noted for his masterpieces American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago), and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

American Scene Painting rejected contemporary Parisian aesthetics, and instead sought truth from a more meaningful American subject matter. This in turn led to a further purification process - the rejection of metropolitan America (along with Social Realism) in favour of the 'more authentic' small-town and rural America. Not surprisingly, such pariochialism proved a creative dead end and, during the late 1940s, triggered the appearance of American Abstract Expressionism. Ironically, in their attempt to reject European abstract art, American realist painters only succeeded in creating the greatest monster of abstraction, ever.

Collections of American Scene Painting

Works by American Scene painters hang in the best art museums across America, notably the following:

- Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
- Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa
- Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee
- National Museum of American Art, Washington DC
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
- Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana

For an earlier era, see: American Colonial Art (c.1670-1800).

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