Crocker Art Museum
American Revolutions: The Other Side of Modern, 1900-1945
by Scott A. Shields
The history of twentieth-century art in the United States is usually discussed as a series of revolutions. These revolutions are manifest in changing attitudes about the goals and purposes of art, definitions of what art is and should be and, most importantly, the development of abstraction. The primacy given to these changes by art historians, especially the development of abstraction, has relegated the consideration of subject-based painting, with the traditional themes like landscape, still-life, figure, portrait and genre painting, to a secondary role. However, for artists on both the East and West Coasts, it was precisely through these themes that American modernism primarily developed. This exhibition seeks to explore the evolution of early twentieth-century painting not through abstraction, but through representational art.
Until the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, most American artists were never entirely comfortable with relinquishing the hard-earned drawing skills they learned through rigorous academic training. This is particularly evident in the work of American Impressionist artists who, unlike their European counterparts, were never quite willing to dissolve their subjects in a flurry of brushstrokes and light. By and large, American artists utilized only the Impressionists' vocabulary of color and brushwork, but retained the underlying solidity and structure of the forms they were portraying. American Impressionist Childe Hassam (1859-1935) [fig. 1] took his nationalism one step further. Descended from old New England lineage, Hassam not only retained the solidity of the subjects he portrayed, but identified himself as an American artist seeking to invest Impressionism with an American spirit. Many local artists followed suit, and sought to make their impressionist paintings not only distinctly American, but distinctly Californian. (left: fig. 1 Childe Hassam (1859-1935), An Outdoor Portrait of Miss Weir, 1909. Oil on canvas, 38 x 38 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. And Mrs. Vern C. Jones and other donors)
Other artists in the first decades of the century pursued different paths. Painters of the Boston school, for instance, chose to concentrate less on style than on subject, depicting the wealthy, refined sitters reminiscent of America's Gilded Age. Others, like the Urban Realists, also called the "Ashcan School," produced darker, grittier scenes of the more seamy aspects of city life. This group of artists, led by Robert Henri (1865-1929), broke with the academic traditions of the last century and exhibited together as "The Eight." Their styles and subjects varied widely, and in addition to city views included rural landscapes, genre scenes, and portraits of children, frequently drawn from the urban poor. Henri himself was particularly dedicated to portraiture, and the artist's portraits of children, frequently representing different ethnic groups, manifest his democratic view of humanity [fig. 2]. ( left: fig. 2 Robert Henri (1865-1929), The Romany Girl, n.d.. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Museum Purchase Fund; right: fig. 3 Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), March, Greenland, 1932-33. Oil on canvas mounted on board, 34 x 44 in. Crocker Museum Purchase)
In contrast, other painters, particularly those who worked outside the East's artistic centers, depicted landscape scenes nearly devoid of human presence. Artist Rockwell Kent's (1882-1971) northern snow-clad landscapes, for instance, present nature as a sublime force imbued with transcendental and symbolic meaning, continuing the traditions of the nineteenth-century Hudson River School [fig. 3]. California artist Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), by contrast, focused on the West, depicting the frontier landscape and the Native Americans and vaqueros who lived there [fig. 4]. Other Californians depicted scenes of pure landscape-from mountain to coastal views-while some portrayed California as an Arcadia, a place where nymphs might bathe in pastoral settings [fig. 5]. (left: fig. 4 Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Indian on a Horse, 1907. Watercolor, 10 1/2 x 13 3/8 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Dr. Herzl Friedlander)
After San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, California artists began to strike out in new directions, moving from Tonalism, which was then the dominant aesthetic in the San Francisco Bay Area, to Impressionism and beyond. Even when applying more modern methods such as Post-impressionist paint application, cubist composition, and Fauvist color, Californians continued to focus on the state's natural settings and were reluctant to abandon their subject matter completely. This would not change until the mid-twentieth century.
In New York, the core group of artists championed by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), which included Arthur Dove (1880-1946), Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), and John Marin (1870-1953), as well as the closely associated Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), were pioneers in the development of abstraction in the United States between 1910 and 1920. However, even these artists chose representation as their primary mode of expression. Hartley's cubist-inspired abstractions, for instance, although highly significant in his oeuvre, were a brief foray in his career, and for Dove, O'Keeffe and Marin, non-referential abstraction was attempted only rarely. Theirs was a relative abstraction, a means for communicating the underlying essence and spirit of their subjects. Georgia O'Keeffe's still life from 1942 entitled It Was a Man and a Pot [fig. 6] combines a recognizable subject with an abstract composition. Characterized by a combination of formal power and romantic mystery, the painting is an elegiac meditation on mortality through the broken shards of a ceramic vessel and a human skull. (left: fig. 6 Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), It Was a Man and a Pot, 1942. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Crocker Art Museum Association purchase with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts)
As America came of age in the early twentieth century, and as the United States began to assume a more global position of world leadership, American artists generally were attempting to define the native qualities of their art. In the years following World War I, writers such as Van Wyck Brooks and Waldo Frank urged artists to render their own distinctly American perception of place, arguing that by rendering the particular they could achieve the universal. With American isolationist tendencies and attitudes strong in the wake of the War, concentration on people and places American became particularly pronounced.
American scene painting and the Golden State variant, California scene painting, are labels broadly applied to many artists, particularly the Regionalists, Social Realists, and artists under government employ during the Great Depression. These artists turned to local subjects, depicting the people, manmade environments, and landscapes they found close at hand. Their art sought to express nationalistic sentiments and an explicitly American experience through topicality, local custom, and anecdote. By depicting the subject matter they knew best, these artists sought to develop a democratic art accessible to the ordinary person. They employed recognizable themes, easily readable styles, and occasionally nostalgia and sentiment. In technique, they sought to avoid or reject foreign influences and to create American art in an American style. Works of this period include the Midwestern regionalism of artists like Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) [fig. 7], figurative artists such as Moses Soyer (1899-1974) and Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958), and local California scene paintings and prints by Millard Sheets (1907-1989), Chiura Obata (1885-1975) [fig. 8], Otis Oldfield (1890-1969), and others. (left: fig. 8 Chiura Obata (1885-1975), Evening Moon: Yosemite, ca. 1928. Color woodblock print, 17 3/4 x 13 1/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Kodani)
In the span of forty years, these American paintings, although based on visual reality, could not, and did not, remain stagnant, but responded to forces of change and evolving conceptions of modernity. During this period, artists' interpretations of the American experience were widely divergent, and the diversity present in their art was greater than in any previous period of American art history and has since only continued to expand. It is this individuality of experience, this tenacity of purpose, that most characterize the American vision.
fig. 1 Childe Hassam (1859-1935), An Outdoor Portrait of Miss Weir, 1909. Oil on canvas, 38 x 38 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. And Mrs. Vern C. Jones and other donors.
fig. 2 Robert Henri (1865-1929), The Romany Girl, n.d.. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of the Museum Purchase Fund.
fig. 3 Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), March, Greenland, 1932-33. Oil on canvas mounted on board, 34 x 44 in. Crocker Museum Purchase.
fig. 4 Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Indian on a Horse, 1907. Watercolor, 10 1/2 x 13 3/8 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Dr. Herzl Friedlander.
fig. 5 Xavier Martinez (1869-1943), The Bathers, n.d. Oil on canvas, 16 x 13 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of William C. Wright.
fig. 6 Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), It Was a Man and a Pot, 1942. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Crocker Art Museum Association purchase with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.
fig. 7 Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Planting, 1939. Lithograph, 11 3/8 x 15 3/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of James M. Stephens.
fig. 8 Chiura Obata (1885-1975), Evening Moon: Yosemite, ca. 1928. Color woodblock print, 17 3/4 x 13 1/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Kodani.
About the Curator: Scott A. Shields
Formerly the Curator of Fine Arts at the California Historical Society, Scott A. Shields has extensive experience working with California art in various media. He became particularly interested in California painting while serving as the National Endowment for the Arts Intern in American Paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and subsequently selected a California-based dissertation topic dealing with the artists' colony of Monterey and Carmel. His undergraduate degrees are in art education and graphic design, both from the University of Nebraska, and he holds an M.A. in art history from the University of Kansas. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in American Art at this same institution. (left: Scott A. Shields)
Shields has curated numerous exhibitions including The Exoticized Woman and Her Allure in American Art, Feminine and Floral Imagery of the Art Nouveau, Stay East Young Man: California Gold Rush Letter Sheets, Interpreting California: The Art of History, and California 1900. He is currently at work on an exhibition featuring California's French painters, entitled Splendide Californie: French Artists Impressions of the Golden State, 1786-1900. Shields has written articles for various scholarly journals, including the Smithsonian's journal American Art and, most recently, was one of the contributing authors to a book on artist Percy Gray, published by the Carmel Art Association.
American Revolutions: The Other Side of Modern, 1900 - 1945 is on exhibit February 2 - April 29, 2001
Checklist of the Exhibition
Milton Avery, American, 1893 - 1965, Drawbridge, 1936, Drypoint, Gift of Bruce Beck in memory of Philip S. Tow 1986.10
Gifford Beal, American, 1879 - 1956, Bareback Act, Old Hippodrome, Not dated, Lithograph, Gift of Associated American Artists, 1967.12
Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889 - 1975, Planting (also titled Spring Plowing), 1939, Lithograph, Gift of James M. Stephens, 1966.21
Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889 - 1975, Loading Corn (also titled Shucking Corn), 1945, Lithograph, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael J. Heller 1968.32
Ray Bertrand, American, 1909 - 1960, Study for Hermit Valley, Not dated, Carbon watercolor wash on paper, Crocker Art Museum Association, 1885.547
Rex Brandt, American, 1914 - 2000, Junction at Julian, c. 1939, Watercolor on paper, Art Acquisition Fund 1959 ,1959.8
Giuseppe Leone Cadenasso, American, 1854 - 1918, Seminary Avenue, Mills College, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Ralph W. Schaffarzick in memory of their son, Jon, 1991.13
Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon, American, 1869 - 1952, San Francisco, Not dated, Lithograph, Gift of Jennie Crocker Fassett, 1925.3.148e
Colin Campbell Cooper, American, 1856 -1937, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, c. 1915, Oil on canvas, Gift of Helene Seeley in memory of Mr. and Mrs. C.C. Cooper, Conserved with funds provided by Gerald Gordon through the Gifts to Share program, 1940.24
Tom Craig, American, 1907 - 1969, City of Elk, Not dated, Watercolor on paper, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. Alan Post, 1973.3
Arthur Bowen Davies, American, 1862 - 1928, Woodland Spring, Not dated, Lithograph, Gift of Jennie Crocker Fassett, 1925.3.148j
Maynard Dixon American, 1875 - 1946, Indian on Horse, Sept. 12, 1907, Watercolor on paper, Gift of Dr. Herzl Friedlander, 1980.77
Guy Péne du Bois, American, 1884 - 1958, Girl Reading a Book, 1929, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herzl Friedlander, 1972.13
Frederick Carl Frieseke, American, 1874 - 1939, Woman in Her Boudoir, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of Anne and Malcolm McHenry, 1994.18.1
John Marshall Gamble, American, 1863 - 1957, Wild Lilac and Poppies, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of the California Museum Association, 1948.5
Percy Gray, American, 1869 - 1952, Cypress Trees near Pt. Lobos, 1924, Watercolor on paper laminated to cardboard, Gift of the California Museum Association, 1948.3
Marion Greenwood, American, 1909 - 1970, Fringed Scarf, Not dated, Lithograph, Gift of Associated American Artists, 1925.3.148g
Marsden Hartley, American, 1877 - 1943, Fisherman's Family, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herzl Friedlander, 1976.15
Childe Hassam American, 1859 - 1935, An Outdoor Portrait of Miss Weir, 1909, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Vern C. Jones and other donors, 1980.23
Childe Hassam, American, 1859 - 1935, On the Palisades, 1916, Watercolor on paper, Purchased with funds from the Crocker Art Gallery Association and the Art Acquisition Fund 1975, 1975.53
Robert Henri, American, 1865 - 1929, The Romany Girl, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Museum Purchase Fund 1965, 1965.38
Herman G. Herkomer, American, 1863 - 1935, The Artist's Wife and Son, 1904, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Blanche Herkomer, 1950.12
Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, American, 1880 - 1960, Palm Canyon, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Museum Purchase, 1939.77
Maryn Hunzeker, American, 1907 - 1972, S.P. [Southern Pacific] Yards, Roseville, Not dated, Watercolor on paper, Gift in memory of Mary Hunzeker, 1974.33
William Franklin Jackson, American, 1850 - 1936, Suisun Marshes, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Anonymous gift, 1948.1
Rockwell Kent, American, 1882 - 1971, March, Greenland,1932 - 33, Oil on canvas mounted on board, Crocker Art Museum Association, 1975.25
Dong Kingman, American, b. 1911, Bay at Sunrise, Not dated, Lithograph, Donor unknown, 1885.351
Gene (Alice Geneva) Kloss, American, 1903 - 1996, From Telegraph Hill, Not dated, Engraving, Gift of the Kingsley Art Club, 1974.25.17
Mary Amanda Lewis, American, 1877 - 1953, Sketching, c. 1914, Oil on canvas, Gift of the artist, 1950.19
Erle Loran, American, 1905 - 1999, San Francisco Bay, 1940, Lithograph, Crocker Art Museum Association, 1925.3.148c
Peppino Mangravite, American, 1896 - 1978, Untitled, Not dated, Lithograph, Crocker Art Museum Association, 1885.353
Xavier Timoteo Martinez, American, 1869 - 1943, The Bathers, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of William C. Wright, 1962.22
Gertrude Mihsfeldt, American, 1903 - 1989, The Dancing Lesson, 1940, Lithograph, Crocker Art Museum Association, 1885.489
Barse Miller, American, 1904 - 1973, Along the Sacramento, 1941, Watercolor on paper, Gift of Mrs. Barse Miller, 1975.71
Perham Wilhelm Nahl, American, 1869 - 1935, Fifteenth Goblin: The Fairy Prince Cloud-Chariot and the Serpent Shell-Crest. Which is the more self-sacrificing?, c. 1916, Watercolor and chalk on paper backed by board, Gift of Mrs. Helen Crawford, 1943.4
Karl Eugen Neuhaus, American, 1879 - 1963, Mouth of the Navarro River, c. 1920, Oil on canvas, Gift of Robert Neuhaus, 1979.19
Chiura Obata, American (b. Japan), 1885 - 1975, Evening Moon: Yosemite, c. 1928, Color woodblock on paper, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugen Kodani, 1994.25.2
Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887 - 1986, It was a Man and a Pot, 1942, Oil on canvas, Gift of California Art Gallery Association with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1973.23
Otis William Oldfield, American, 1890 - 1969, Mountain Flag Stop, Not dated, Watercolor on paper, Donor unknown, 1885.470
George Booth Post, American, b. 1906, Piedmont Hills, 1966, Watercolor on paper, Gift of the Crocker Art Gallery Association, 1967.17
William Frederick Ritschel, American, 1864 - 1949, The In-Stealing Fog, 1916, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Charles Alexander, 1939.61.1
Millard Sheets, American, 1907 - 1989, Beyond the Arroyo, 1937, Watercolor on paper, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herzl Friedlander, 1972.29
John Sloan, American, 1871 - 1951, Brainerd's Office, Not dated, Black wax crayon on paper, Gift of Maude T. Pook, 1965.6
John Sloan, American, 1871 - 1951, Salvation Dinners, 1909, Etching, Crocker Art Museum Association, 1966.9.1
Moses Soyer, American, 1898 - 1974, Ballerina, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herzl Friedlander, 1979.49
Maurice H. Sterne, American (b. Russia), 1877 - 1957, Italian Summer - Shepherdess Sleeping, 1925 - 36, Oil on board, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herzl Friedlander, 1973.5
Charles Frederick Surendorf, American, 1906 - 1979, Old Fire House-Columbia, Not dated, Lithograph, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Herzl Friedlander, 1972.12.4
Edmund C. Tarbell, American, 1862 - 1934, In the Station Waiting Room, Boston, ca. 1915, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. Joseph R. Fazzano, 1956.7
Theodore Wores, American, 1860 - 1939, Sand Dunes and Wild Flowers, Not dated, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. Ben Shenson and Dr. A. Jess Shenson, 1970.19
Harry Wickey, American, 1892 - 1968, Third Avenue El, Not dated, Etching, Museum Purchase Fund,. 1967.35
Read more about the Crocker Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine
Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.