As our country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, thoughts naturally turn to other periods of hardship in American history, such as the Great Depression.
Between 1929 and 1932, national income plunged from $105 billion to less than $60 billion. Automobile production dropped from 5.4 million units to under 1.4 million. The value of stocks fell to 20 percent of their pre-crash level. Approximately 11,000 of 25,000 American banks failed. Unemployment reached an estimated 12 million to 15 million workers, representing 25 to 30 percent of the workforce. Agriculture, which had been depressed during much of the 1920s, suffered equally harsh declines. From 1929 to 1933, farm prices fell 61 percent, sending farm income dropping from $13 billion to $5.5 billion. Foreclosures and tax sales forced farmers off their land in record numbers. In the same four years, the nation’s suicide rate increased 25 percent.1
While many of these conditions differ from our current situation and the lingering effects of the coronavirus epidemic are not yet fully known, the disruptions of the Great Depression to communities, families, and the economy, as well as fears over dislocation, hunger, poverty, and death, are all too familiar.
The Depression era coincided with a moment when a small group of American artists broke from the prevailing modern art styles to return to more representational imagery based in the American scene. In 1934 Thomas Hart Benton’s self-portrait graced the cover of Time magazine. It accompanied an article declaring Benton and fellow artists Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry as the standard bearers for a new American art movement called “Regionalism.” While not associated with a specific school, art colony, or manifesto, Regionalism delineated a group of artists united by the belief that American art should depict native subjects in a realist style that was relevant to its citizens, as opposed to the elitism that they associated with European modernism.
Regionalism embraced populist subjects, such as scenes of rural America (particularly the Midwest), communal work, social gatherings, children, folk traditions, historical leaders, and lowbrow entertainments. While a few works alluded to the hardships of the Great Depression, especially on America’s rural poor, the overall spirit was one of hopeful optimism, frequently imbued with patriotism and nostalgia for a simpler, preindustrial time. Some of the images, nevertheless, possess a satirical undertone, reflect the potential for hidden danger, or suggest the challenges of societal change.
The Regionalist aesthetic spread like wild fire during the thirties and forties. It was the style of choice for many government-sponsored public art projects, from Benton’s Indiana Murals (now housed on the Indiana University campus) to the New Deal (Treasury Department) post office murals.2
Regionalist ideas were also widely disseminated through prints, most of which were circulated by Associated American Artists (AAA). Publicist and gallerist Reeves Lewenthal founded the AAA in 1934 to support struggling artists and to create affordable, original “art for the people.” Each artist received a flat fee of $200 per image, which was produced in an edition of 250. These prints were sold through the AAA’s New York gallery, in department stores, and mass-marketed by mail order for an “incredible, but true” price of only $5 each (or six for $25!). Among Lewenthal’s first invitees were Benton, Wood, and Curry, the so-called Regionalist “triumvirate.” However, the majority of the AAA prints featured work by lesser-known artists, many of whom embraced the style and themes of this kind of homespun social realism. This feature represents a small sampling from the more than 130 AAA prints in the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection.
While AAA prints provided an important outlet for reassuring imagery that promoted Democratic ideals and a new market for artists during domestic hard times, the inherent nationalism of Regionalism no longer seemed as relevant with the outward-looking, international focus of the United States at the start of World War II. Some artists like Benton began to reflect on the emotional toll to soldiers and their families back home, while Curry’s print Our Good Earth (fig. 1), was reissued as a war bond poster.
Nanette Esseck Brewer
Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper
1 Claude Cookman, essay in The People’s America: Farm Security Administration Photographs (1935–1943), Selections from the Henry Holmes Smith Archive (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Art Museum, 1997), p. 7. The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection has more than 600 photographs from the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration government projects that depict many of the hardships of the Depression era.
2 This does not mean that more modernist approaches were completely ignored in New Deal art, as seen in the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)/Federal Art Project (FAP) mural Swing Landscape by Stuart Davis, which will be the featured work in our upcoming exhibition at the museum.
3 Some of these works were featured in the museum’s exhibition, Homespun America: Regionalist Prints from the Indiana University Art Museum’s Collection (March 18–May 18, 2008).
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Brewer, Nannette Esseck. "Art in Hard Times: Regionalist Prints and the Great Depression." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/regionalist-prints-great-depression.php.