Regionalism in Art: Definition, History & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Is there something distinctive about where you live? Could you capture it in artwork? The Regionalists were artists who believed this was so. In this lesson, learn about Regionalism in art and explore its history.

What Is Regionalism?

What's unique about where you live? Is it urban or rural? Just as a region is a section of a larger geographic area, some kinds of art explore specific geographic areas and environments. In the United States, such art gained the name Regionalism.

Regionalism was an American art movement that developed in the late 1920s and became popular through the 1930s. Centered around artists working in the Midwest in states like Kansas and Missouri, it was art that focused on rural life in America. Regionalism explored the people and places of what was considered the heartland of the United States. It was art designed for the general public, and several Regionalist artists became well-known for their public mural work.

History of Regionalism in Art

Regionalism developed in America at at challenging time. The Great Depression was increasingly making life difficult for people across the country. Several artists working in the Midwest began painting the people, work atmosphere and life around them, predominantly rural and agricultural in nature. These artists were consciously pursuing a style different than the art then in fashion in urban art centers like New York City and Paris.

The work of the Regionalists was a search for distinctly American art. It was also a rejection of abstraction. Abstraction was art that didn't portray images or scenes found in the real world, and it was the major movement dominating European art at the time. Unlike abstraction, Regionalism was based on the real world of a specific place and time. In fact, some Regionalist artists described their work as having a goal of creating 'scenes of America.' While many artists working in the Midwest became known as Regionalists, three artists in particular became very associated with the style.

Grant Wood

One of the most famous Regionalist artists was Grant Wood (1891 -1942), an Iowa-born artist who studied art abroad in Europe. Although he saw modern art like abstraction, he rejected it, returning to Iowa where he was inspired by the farm life around him. Wood painted possibly the most well-known Regionalist painting, titled American Gothic, painted in 1930.

In American Gothic, a stoic farmer, eyes straight ahead, grasps a pitchfork in his hand as his stern wife turns her gaze slightly in his direction. Behind them stands a plain, wood frame farm house. It's not a sentimental image and it captures a sense of tough spirit of the American farmer.

American Gothic by Grant Wood
American Gothic

Wood was a spokesperson and champion of Regionalism, promoting it and its values whenever he could. In the images of rural work, hard life and work on the farm in sometimes harsh conditions, Regionalism also evoked a sort of patriotism and an attempt to create art that was authentically American, with no influences from modern art being done in Europe at the time.

Thomas Hart Benton

Another Regionalist artist, Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975), was born in Missouri and studied art in Chicago. Benton also spent time in Europe and painted in more modern styles before abandoning them in favor of his own style of realism. Benton portrayed farm life and working people as exaggerated curving figures. So his art was realistic in the sense of subject matter but not in rendering of form. He spent years painting and teaching in New York City before eventually returning to Missouri.

Benton became famous for mural work, an example of which is Achelous and Hercules, painted in 1947 on the wall of a Kansas City department store. In it, figures from Greek mythology are rendered as Midwest farmers, workers and other contemporary figures.

Section of the mural Achelous and Hercules by Thomas Hart Benton
Achelous and Hercules

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