American Scene art has been labeled conservative because it is realistic and speaks of a country turned inward while looking at its past history for inspiration. This is in part due to the government’s W.P.A. program that required the subject matter provide validation of the American system in a realistic style that could be understood by all. However, this view overlooks the influences set loose on American Scene art by evolving European modernism. American artists’ passion for experimentation that began in 1913 with the Armory Show continued into the 1930s. American Scene artists appropriated art styles in a spirit of freedom that allowed them to take what they could use; radically altering, distorting, and rearranging a realistic composition to achieve a more compelling expression. This spirit was not a development unique to any one painter or group. Pockets of modernism occurred across America during the 1930s and 1940s. Some artists could shift between modernism and more conventional American Scene realism with ease.
There were several vehicles for the continued influence of modernism in America. One was that American artists were trained in Europe for decades and still looked to Europe for sophisticated up-to-date styles they could adapt to American taste. With the outbreak of the First World War, many trained American artists returned to their homes while continuing to explore modern European styles. These artists then spread art innovations of pre-war Paris to artists in their own communities and through summer art colonies they attended. Another wave of European influence came with the approach of World War II as artists who had been teachers or participants in the German Bauhaus brought Geometric Abstraction to America. The practical training artists received in American art schools opened the door to modernism through graphic design courses, which enabled them to earn their living in illustration for magazines and newspapers. This commercial work required an artist to shift into different styles, balance representation and abstraction, use color as a vehicle of feeling, and generally streamline the design to deliver a stronger message.
Cubism, Precisionism, Folk Art, photography, Surrealism, and commercial editing were all stylistic influences that brought modernism to American Scene art.
Two works in our exhibition deal with labor and immigration, prominent subjects of American Scene painting, using elements from modern abstraction. In both Field Workers, 1930 by Peppino Mangravite (1896-1978) and The Crossing, 1932 by George Biddle (1885-1973), the Cubist device of tipping the perspective of the composition to provide an overview in a compressed space is used. Mangravite uses a charged outline and Biddle uses brilliant colors to ensure their multiple figures are the central focus amid patterned and angled settings.
American Scene artists continued to use Precisionism, the American compromise between Cubism and realism characterized by sharped edged, simplified forms painted with large areas of unmodulated color in a smooth precise technique. Industrial subjects like Hudson River Boat II, 1927 by Ernest Fiene (1894-1965) and Industrial Scene, 1942 by Virginia Cuthbert (1908-2001) both make use of Precisionism’s geometric abstraction and dramatic perspectives. As artists began to work out how to make an abstract painting, the similarities between music and art in structure, sensuality, and even terminology were discussed. Considering painting as music for the eyes impacted American Scene artists who set color in motion through rhythm and repetition as seen in Ernest Fiene’s Woodstock Spring, 1930.
Folk Art is another progressive influence on American Scene art as it showed how to create a unified surface by ignoring unnecessary details and simplifying form in a flattened space. The combination of Folk Art’s naiveté and the sophistication of modernism can be seen in the farm scene Harvesting Wheat, 1940 by Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Two other paintings that connect with Folk Art are Pastoral, 1938 by Doris Lee (1905-1983) and American Farm, 1930 by Allan Gould (1908-1988). Both have flat rhythmical designs that enliven their descriptive realism. Folk Art also influenced sculpture, as seen in Elie Nadelman’s (1882-1946) Two Women, 1933 whose painted plaster shapes are adapted from Folk Art chalkware.
Photography treated as an art form became an important influence on painting, either through its direct use or subconsciously. In the 1930s cameras became portable and less expensive allowing artists to use photography as another way to develop a composition. This resulted in hard-edged, sharply focused compositions in a close-up cropped format. Rockwell Kent’s (1882-1971) Winter Evening, 1945 is painted with the informal framing of a snapshot taken from a distance. Time of day, weather, location and the probable activities of the inhabitants of Kent’s Adirondack farming community are all suggested. In contrast. Luigi Lucioni (1900-1988) paints with the sharp focus of a photographic close-up Barns on the Road, 1948, aiming to record the formal architectural structure of Vermont’s disappearing barns. Still life paintings with their formal arrangements and controlled lighting also evoke photography. Two examples are Fish and White Pitcher, 1934 by Henry Varnum Poor (1888-1970) and Spring Flowers, 1935 by Emil Ganso (1895-1941).
Surrealism’s exploration of automatism and the subconscious as the essential source of art arrived in America in the 1930s and many Surrealists artists themselves followed by 1940. Surrealism’s emphasis on the emotional elements of painting allowed realism to become interpretative and psychological while its blend of figuration with expressive symbols of mood allowed the artist to project himself into his paintings. American Scene artists developed a style called Magic Realism which used Surrealism’s fantasy of distortion to imbue social commentary into seemingly traditional subjects. This can be seen in Field Worker, 1942 by Georges Schreiber (1904-1977) which contrasts the joyful black youth in the foreground with the dark and somewhat menacing landscape. The same extreme figural realism is seen in the close-up portrait of fellow Cleveland artist Clara McClean, 1931 by Clarence Carter (1904-2000). Miss McClean’s strong individuality contrasts with the repetitive houses behind her. In these Magic Realist paintings, the artists’ choice of background subtly locates and comments on the central figure.
Artists who had earned their living in design or illustration developed a streamlined modernist vocabulary that used color as a vehicle of feeling and mixed recognizable forms with abstract shapes to bring attention to the narrative. Dale Nichols (1904-1995) began his career in illustration and believed fine and commercial art should not be mutually exclusive. Nichols painted America’s landscape and its people in Nebraska, Alaska, and Arizona. For Children of the Sun, 1944, Nichols used blocks of abstract color to make a positive social statement about Native American families in the American West. A painting in our exhibition that speaks to illustration as well as many other influences already discussed is Christmas Morning, 1938 by Francis Criss (1901-1973). Criss sets up the scene like a Victorian illustration for a women’s magazine and yet the composition is a fusion of 19th century genre, landscape, and still life painting all tied together in a palette influenced by black and white photography. Overall there is an impression of simplicity, emphasized by the woman’s form that evokes Folk Art, yet Christmas Morning is a highly complex painting as it contains so many style and subject references in one unified composition.
By the mid-1940s American Scene painting had begun to wane. The country became more international and American Scene’s focus on hope and jobs had been fulfilled as economic struggle relaxed in the midst of the war economy. Artists shifted their focus from subject matter to the various forms of modernism and the aesthetic dimensions of texture, form, color organization, and paint quality. Soon after 1945, with no market for art in Europe, the arrival of European artists and their dealers in America with their European tastes brought an end to American Scene art in our market until renewed interest developed in the 1980s.