Social Realism vs. Regionalism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What does American art look like? There's a long history behind this question, and in this lesson we're going to see how it was answered by both Regionalism and Social Realism.

American Scene Painting

Can American art really be any good? Yes it can. However, people in Europe weren't always convinced of that. For a long time, American art was looked down upon as derivative, unoriginal, and uninspired. Many American artists responded by engaging with the top styles of Europe and mastering European techniques and artistic movements. One of the crowning achievements in this history came in 1913 when the USA was chosen to host an international exhibition of modernist art called the Armory Show.

Then, Europe imploded. The chaos and devastation of World War I was enough to convince several American artists that pursuing European approval was absurd. Instead, they decided to continue focusing on developing a more American aesthetic and artistic style. They rejected European artistic fashions, and at the time this meant rejecting the move towards abstraction. Rather than trying to develop truly abstract art, American painters started creating stylized but representational scenes of American life. We call this overarching trend American Scene Painting .

American Scene Painting was an influential movement from the mid-1920s through World War II. The goal was to capture American sensibilities in art, so the compositions tended to be pro-American and nationalist. They also sought to break from European customs by celebrating the working class American (rather than aristocratic elites). At the same time, American Scene Painting tended to carry political overtones, particularly in reaction to the Great Depression as the average working-class American became unemployed and impoverished. Overall, American Scene Painting represented one of the first true rejections of European movements and an important step in the development of truly great American art.


American Scene Painting focused on working-class citizens and American life, all while rejecting abstraction and elitism. So, what exactly did that look like? There were two related but distinct movements within American Scene Painting that most defined American art of the era. First was Regionalism.

Regionalist art, like this mural by John Steuart Curry, often romanticized rural America

Regionalism was an artistic movement that appeared in the 1920s but really became prominent during the Great Depression. It was defined by scenes of rural and small-town America. For the Regionalists, it was the incessant urbanization of American culture (and it's desire to keep up with European urbanization) that caused the Great Depression. To many Regionalists, urbanization, abstract art, imperialism, fascism, and elitism were all part and parcel of European cultures. Instead, they celebrated farmers, ranchers, and small-town working people as icons of a peaceful, democratic America. In doing so, they also implicitly launched an attack against urban-centric politics and the slow response of the government to address rural concerns during the Great Depression.

The most famous of the Regionalist painters were Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. All three of these men had been educated in Paris but decided to reject abstraction and pursue an American form of representational art. To them, the Great Depression may actually have been a positive thing because it demonstrated the evils of urbanization and proved why the future of America needed to be agricultural.

Regionalist painting by Grant Wood

Social Realism

The Regionalists created beautiful scenes of American life, but they weren't alone in this. Another closely related movement was Social Realism. Social Realism also rejected European abstraction and presented critiques of society during the Great Depression. However, there were some differences.

Part of a mural by Ben Shahn

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