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12.2: American Modernism (1900 – 1930s)

  • Page ID
    31978
  • American modernism was a cultural movement in the United States, showing both progressive transformation and optimism in the future. It is a reflection of life in America during the 20th century and the continuing socially climbing middle class. Modernism was all about life in the new century, modern art, modern sculpture, and modern architecture, all supporting life in the modern world.

    Providing art for the modern home required paintings beyond any previous style, moving to abstraction and self-reflection. Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986), an American painter, began experimenting, leading her to develop highly abstracted art. Her drawings and paintings are large scale, extreme close-ups of flowers, leaves, and trees or combinations of skulls and flowers.

    O'Keefe's Blue and Green Music (12.1) was a beautiful work of movement, color, and form, and using colors from the cool side of the color wheel, O'Keefe captures something to see in an abstracted form. Painting from feelings, the rhythm and depth in this painting is a translation from music into a painting. The unusual grouping in Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills (12.2) captures the juxtaposition of the elements she loved in the southwest, flora, landscape, and skeletons. The head and flower positioned against the roiling skies, while the mountains anchor the painting.

    Blue and Green Music
    12.1 Blue and Green Music
     Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills
    12.2 Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills

    Georgia O'Keeffe a Life in Art from Georgia O'Keeffe Museum on Vimeo.

    The Girl at a Sewing Machine (12.3), painted by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), an American realist, is an iconic genre scene where Hopper rendered his reflection of modern life in America. Born in New York and traveling to Europe, influenced by the great painters of the impressionism and post-impressionism periods. Hopper's painting New York City Restaurant (12.4) has quiet scenes with heavy shadows crossing the image, a theme he frequently chose, scenes with long, casting shadows on architecture, people, and landscapes. Receiving graphic design and illustration art training, he originally earned a living drawing illustration, switching to the fleeting scenes of New York life and landscapes. His art borders on sadness, generated by the loneliness of the scene. Most of Hopper's paintings are at night, when few are out, increasing the sense of solitude. In the painting, the faces are hidden and emotionless, heightening the feeling of loneliness.

     Girl at a Sewing Machine
    12.3 Girl at a Sewing Machine
    New York City Restaurant
    12.4 New York City Restaurant

    Painting the American dream mural for a department store in the mid-west, Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), used a mythological analogy and intense colors to depict the story. The twenty-two-foot mural, Achelous and Hercules (12.5) was a post-war depiction of how a bountiful agricultural society, represented by the power and strength of the two Greeks, can harness the flooding rivers (the bull) to produce food. The story is the origin of the cornucopia, a symbol of cultivated abundance. In the painting Madison Square Park in New York City, (12.6) Benton uses a muted color palette and a surrealist style to depict and the intersection at the part, people hurrying to their destination, the early 1920's Seward statute, the eternal light flagpole, and the Worth Obelisk.

    Achelous and Hercules
    12.5 Achelous and Hercules
    Madison Square Park in New York City
    12.6 Madison Square Park in New York City

    The first African-American painter to receive international acclaim in art was Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). American born, he escaped America's racism by moving to Paris and was accepted by the French artistic circles and Salons. The Banjo Players (12.7) is an intricate painting of a grandfather and his grandson Tanner painted during a family visit. Instead of painting the stereotypical depiction of Black Americans as entertainers, Tanner painted a private lesson on the banjo in a living room with natural glowing light from outside. Spinning by Firelight (12.8) represents Tanner's perception of American life at the turn of the century. In his paintings, Tanner represented the human qualities he observed and demonstrated Tanner's immense talent as a painter.

    “I was extremely timid and to be made feel that I was not wanted, although in a place I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain” [1]

    Banjo Players
    12.7 Banjo Players
    Spinning by Firelight
    12.8 Spinning by Firelight

    Marion Hasbrouck Beckett (1886-1949) was born in New York and inherited her father's vast fortune at an early age and entered into multiple social circles. Primarily a portrait painter, she was friends with and exhibited at the 291 Gallery owned by the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Beckett was also sued for $200,000 by Mrs. Eduard J. Steichen(12.9) for having an affair with her husband, Eduard J. Steichen (12.10). When testifying against Beckett in court, she asserted, "Miss Beckett, when my husband was near, would wear nothing but long, clinging gowns and roses…She dressed in a very artistic or theatrical manner to attract attention and exploit her physical charms."

    Mrs. Steichen did not win the case.

    Mrs. Eduard J. Steichen
    12.9 Mrs. Eduard J. Steichen
    Eduard J. Steichen
    12.10 Eduard J. Steichen