American Art in the Early 20th Century

American art in the early 20th century mostly favored Impressionism and Realism, as seen in the works of the group of New York artists, referred to as the Ashcan School. These artists, even in their subject matter, mostly urban subjects and portraits of friends and society people, used Impressionist soft-focus and quick brushwork with Realist depictions of working class life in New York City. The pieces below by Robert Henri, who trained under Eakins, and John Sloan epitomize the interests and characteristics of the Ashcan School style.

Robert Henri, Portrait of Fay Bainter, 1918 and John Sloan, Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street, 1926 (photo By Robert Henri – Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Public Domain, and

American photographers were heavily involved in the attempts to reframe photography as an art, not a science, which is how it was discussed throughout the 19th century. Alfred Stieglitz, who owned the 291 Gallery and was a photographer, was instrumental in organizing the Photo-Secession movement in 1902. He began his career as a Pictorialist photographer. The Pictorialists created photographs that resembled paintings, using the soft focus, highlighting, and subject matter of Impressionism and the Ashcan School as their basis. Many of them also experimented with labor-intensive techniques, such as platinum printing and gum bichromate printing. These techniques gave a number of different tonalities and colors to the prints missing from the more point and shoot techniques available to photographers at the beginning of the 20th century. These photographs, such as the ones below have the same feeling of some of the Art Nouveau prints and paintings from the period.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Flatiron Building, 1903 and The Terminal, 1892  (photos By Alfred Stieglitz – Camera Work, No 36 1911, Public Domain, and By Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 – 1946) (1864 – 1946) – photographer (American)Details of artist on Google Art Project – TgHj_I56pWg1kQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Edward Steichen, Moonrise–Mamaroneck, NY, 1905 and Gertrude Kasebier, Blessed Art Thou Among Women, 1899 (photos By Edward Steichen (American, 1879 – 1973) (1879 – 1973) – photographer (American)Details of artist on Google Art Project – jAG_bd9HUo0oyw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, and By Gertrude Käsebier (Brooklyn Museum) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Stieglitz soon shifted his focus, possibly because of his gallery, 291, which showed work of a number of European and American avant-garde artists, to what he termed “straight photography,” which involved no manipulation in the darkroom, and the composition of photographs in a more geometric manner. His work after his marriage to Georgia O’Keeffe began to veer more towards abstraction, especially his photographs of clouds, which he called Equivalents.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907 and Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe (Hands), 1918 (photos By Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 – 1946) (1864 – 1946) – photographer (American)Details of artist on Google Art Project – VgFMwBlWg-XTrw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, and By Alfred Stieglitz –, Public Domain,

His works would have an enormous impact on the next generation of American photographers, who also used some of his “straight” techniques, while also riffing off abstraction through their use of extreme close-ups or adherence to strict developing techniques. Edward Weston favored using either close-ups in his studio of mundane objects like shells and produce or photographing nudes in the desert as if they were sculptural forms. In both cases, his work blurs the boundaries between abstraction and photography, often forcing the viewer to think seriously about what they are seeing. The f/64 group of San Francisco also used close-ups in their work, but they are known for their adherence to the Zone System of developing photographs, which called for the entire range of tonalities in the gray scale in black and white photographs. Ansel Adams, a member of f/64 credited with developing the Zone System, used this focus on the quality of the print in the darkroom to create images of the American West. Imogen Cunningham’s close-up images of flowers and plants recall the abstractions of Weston.

Edward Weston, Two Shells, 1927 and Nude, 1936 (photos and

Ansel Adams, Canyon de Chelly, 1941 and Imogen Cunningham, Succulent, 1920 (photos By Ansel Adams – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519852.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Español | Français | Italiano | Македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | Polski | Português | Русский | Slovenščina | Türkçe | Українська | Tiếng Việt | 中文(简体) | 中文(繁體) | +/−Downloaded from [1], Public Domain, and By Imogen Cunningham, Public Domain,

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a number of artists went to work for some of the New Deal government offices, such as the WPA. Many of the photographers associated with the WPA, such as Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, crossed the country, photographing the everyday reality of life in America during the Depression. Some photographs of the period, such as Margaret Bourke-White’s The American Way from 1937 highlight the exaggeration of racial disparities in the United States because of the Depression. Bourke-White took this photograph as part of her covering of a devastating flood of the Ohio River, and it was published by Life Magazine, therefore it is not a WPA photograph, but it fits within the genre of documentary photography that was so important to photography in America in this period.

Walker Evans, Shoeshine Sign in a Southern Town, 1936 and Dorothea Lange, In the Camp of Migratory Pea Pickers, 1936
(Photos By Walker Evans – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [1], Public Domain, and By Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information / Office of Emergency Management / Resettlement Administration – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID fsa.8b29516.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−(cropped to removed negative frame, mild retouching to remove worst dust and scratches from scan);, Public Domain,

The Armory Show of February 1913 in New York had the biggest impact on American art in the period before World War II. This show, which featured more than 1000 works of art from 300 European and American artists, showed to the larger American public the avant-garde European art of the period, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and Cézanne. Although the show was widely panned by critics in its stops in New York and Chicago, it would have an enormous impact on American avant-garde art, as American artists began to either experiment with these new (to them) European styles or to consciously reject them. Artists like Stuart Davis began to incorporate both Cubism and advertising into his post-Armory Show works, creating a new, colorful style.armory_show_2

Armory Show Interior, 1913 (photo By Percy Rainford [1] –, Public Domain,


Stuart Davis, Lucky Strike, 1921 (photo By Davis Stuart – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Berichard using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

The Harlem Renaissance was the significant Black American cultural movement of the 1920s. Many of the artists, like Aaron Douglas, were influenced by both the European avant garde art they saw at the Armory Show, but also by African art, and the poets and musicians that made up part of the Harlem Renaissance. These artists also influenced the next generation of African-American artists, like Jacob Lawrence, to paint subject matter that related to their lived experience. Lawrence, who preferred to work in series using tempera pigments on board, used his art to tell the history of African-Americans in the United States. James VanDerZee was a photographer working in the Harlem Renaissance, who took photographs of the middle class African-American community around him. His works challenge stereotypes of African-Americans from the early 20th century (and beyond). douglas-from-slavery-through-reconstruction_2648d417f9

Aaron Douglas, From Slavery to Reconstruction, 1934 (photo

    Jacob Lawrence, Harriet Tubman Series, No. 7, 1939–40 and No. 49, Migration of the Negro Series, 1941 (photos and

James VanDerZee, Baby Esther, c. late 1920s and Evening Attire, 1922 (photo By James VanDerZee (1886-1983) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By James Van Der Zee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Marsden Hartley studied in Germany immediately before WWI, and ended up in the artists’ colony of Taos in the mid-20th century. His work was impacted both by Cubism and the German Expressionist movements immediately before World War I and by the art of the Native Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest once he moved to Taos. Works like Portrait of a German Officer, which references his lover, Karl von Freyburg, who had been killed in the war, show the influence of Cubism in the forms and use of numbers and letters, combined with the expressive colors of German Expressionism. New Mexico reflects Hartley’s love of the landscape of New Mexico, as well as his association of landscape and human forms. Arthur Dove was influenced by Kandinsky’s views of the spiritual nature in art. Much of his work is playful, reflecting motion and sound. Other artists formed a group called American Precisionism, which used Cubist abstractions and geometrics over realist images. Charles Demuth used images like My Egypt to show pride in American productivity. In many ways, he was driven by some of the same motivations as the American scene painters, as he was attempting to create paintings that celebrated the American experience. Many of Georgia O’Keeffe‘s paintings from New York fit within this style, and respond to many of the same issues and ideas.

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914 and New Mexico, 1916-22 (photos By Marsden Hartley – Art History News, Public Domain, and Marsden Hartley [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Demuth, My Egypt, 1927 and Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building, 1927 (photos Charles Demuth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and

The other strain of American art is referred to as American Scene Painting. The artists associated with this movement rejected the European avant-garde in favor of an interest in the Mid-West, and a style more drawn from Northern European Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck and Pieter Bruegel. The paintings of these artists are strongly naturalistic, and feature subjects drawn from American history or everyday life. One of the artists associated with this movement was Grant Wood, whose most famous work, American Gothic, used his sister and dentist as models for hardworking American farmers, in this case a father and daughter, from the Mid West. Thomas Hart Benton was known for his murals that memorialized the history and the people of the Mid-West, and used a style that combined Art Deco and Northern Renaissance influences. Edward Hopper combined aspects of both Regionalism and Social Realism, in uniquely American settings from the period immediately before World War II. grant_devolson_wood_-_american_gothic

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 (photo By Grant Wood – From The Art Institute of Chicago Museum, Public Domain,


Edward Hopper, NightHawks, 1942 (photo By Edward Hopper – email, Public Domain,

Mexican art of the early 20th century was dominated by a few big names. Los Tres, the 3 major muralists of this period are the most well known, and they created a series of works that reflected the more Marxist politics of period immediately after the 1910 revolution. Diego Rivera painted in a Cubist style in Europe; renounced avant-garde in favor of Mexican nationalism and Social Realism. Rivera painted a series of large murals for the National Palace combined historical imperative with contemporary issues, creating a timeline of Mexican history from the indigenous Pre-Contact cultures through to the past-Revolutionary period. José Clemente Orozco also painted murals in Mexico and the United States, including one in the library of Dartmouth College called Gods of the Modern World, which can easily be read as an indictment of the university system. David Alfaro Siqueiros is known as much for his paintings of his experience in the Spanish Civil War, which were commentaries on both mechanized war and mechanized society. riveramuralnationalpalace

Diego Rivera, From Conquest to Revolution from the History of Mexico fresco murals, 1929–35 (photo By Thelmadatter, CC BY-SA 3.0,


José Clemente Orozco, Gods of the Modern World, mural at Dartmouth College, 1932-1934 (photo By The original uploader was Daderot at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,

The other major Mexican artist of the period was also the wife of Diego Rivera. Frida Kahlo had an interest in childhood memory and the use of imagery to reveal the unconscious mind. Although she is often discussed as a Surrealist, she never allied herself with them, and was interested in creating a visual autobiography. Her work is about her life experiences, including disease, accidents, her marriage, and her heritage. Much of her work shows her interest in Marxism, as well as in the indigenous cultures of Mexico.

Frida Kahlo, Thinking about Death, 1943 and Las Dos Fridas, 1939 (photos and

The art of America (and Mexico quickly) in this period is both very traditional and very avant-garde. The changes that happen here in art in this period are rapid, and reflect the rapid changes in society.


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