Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

7.4: American Modernism (1910-1935)

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)


    American Modernism reflected the worldwide changes in art based on the unique American culture—the movement, along with others in this period, aligned with the experiences of modern industrial existence. Artists rejected the realistic approach to art and moved to more abstraction and experimentation with color and shapes. Artistic themes were based on social agendas, emotional feelings, and political changes. Art was varied, each artist's personal expression as they created new visions.

    One of the most influential events in the art world for this period was the 1913 Armory Show. The show was the first time avant-garde and modern artworks were exhibited in one place. Previously, Americans only saw realistic European art, and now this exhibit had images from Impressionism, Cubism, and other growing new movements. The classical image of the female figure was exhibited as fractured, painted in multiple colors, or set in everyday life. The exhibition was set up by a group of Americans who wanted to change the standards and visions of the 19th century into new and modern concepts. The rules of art were upended and reordered. The show was also a venue for female artists, and forty-eight of the three hundred artists were women. Artists in this section include:

    • Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
    • Marion Beckett (1886-1949)
    • Katherine Rhoades (1885-1965)
    • Katherine Dreier (1877-1952)
    • Elsie Driggs (1898-1992)
    • Julia Morgan (1872-1957)

    Georgia O'Keeffe

    Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) was born in Wisconsin on a wheat farm. She was interested in art from an early age, studied art in high school, and attended the Art Institute of Chicago. After moving to New York, O'Keeffe continued to study traditional art methods until learning the concepts espoused by Arthur Dow. He believed art should be expressive and composition composed of harmonious lines, mass, and colors. These ideas influenced O'Keeffe to develop more abstract drawings to express her feelings. One of her friends took her drawings to show to Alfred Stieglitz, a famous photographer who owned his art gallery. In 1916, he started to exhibit her paintings, and by the mid-1920s, she was acknowledged as a very successful artist, well-known for her oversized depiction of flowers. Her work made her a significant practitioner of American abstraction, a difficult achievement for a female in a male-dominated art world. O'Keeffe developed her style, maintained her vision, and was not deterred by other movements and trends in the art world throughout her life.

    O'Keeffe married Stieglitz in 1924, and he continued to promote her work with multiple shows and installations. She left New York to travel through New Mexico in 1929, a place she was enthralled and inspired by; the stark desert landscape, the native cultures, and the region's architecture generated new ideas and directions for her art. O'Keeffe traveled between New York and New Mexico to work, permanently moving there in 1949 after Stieglitz died. She painted different scenes throughout New Mexico, traveling internationally to depict mountain regions in Peru and Japan. Although she suffered from macular degeneration, as her vision failed, she continued to paint images in her memory until she passed away at age 98.

    O'Keeffe was first known for her incredible close-ups of flowers. Georgia O'Keeffe believed that people merely glance at flowers but never really observe their exquisiteness due to people's fast-paced lives. She wished to give such rushing people experience and the feel of the true beauty of flowers. She said, "If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it, no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me, but I'll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers."[1] She was exceptionally observant, noticing her subjects' subtle shapes, lines, and colors. Flowers became the theme of her first significant set of paintings, focusing on a small flower that filled a large canvas, appearing abstract although a perfect representation of the flower with enhanced bold color and texture. Oriental Poppies (7.3.1) portrays two immense poppies in brilliant oranges and red. She added a deep purple, almost velvet look in the center of each flower. The painting does not have a background; the poppies fill the canvas. Black Iris (7.3.2) is a close-up of an iris; the flower is perfectly reproduced on canvas while engendering a possible abstracted image of a person with their hands overhead. The dark, rich colors draw the eye into the center of the flower as the petals unfold into an almost transparent pink.

    a red and orange flower with a dark center
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Oriental Poppies (1928, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
    close up of a flower in grays and maroons
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Black Iris (1926, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 75.9 cm) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    On her early trips to New Mexico, O'Keeffe became enamored with the animal bones she found in the desert landscape, bones bleached by the sun and weather. In Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (7.3.3), the jagged edges of the skull's bottom half contrasted with the smooth, weatherworn top half. She believed the skull represented the long-lasting and enduring beauty of the desert, the red, white, and blue background symbolizing the American spirit. She painted several versions of skulls and bones in New Mexico. The spectacular landscape and scenery of the rocks and mountains of the variable desert settings were a significant inspiration for O'Keeffe. Near the house, she purchased at Ghost Ranch were brightly colored hills of different hues. Red and Yellow Cliffs (7.3.4) exemplify the incredible mountains rising from the desert floor. The striated precipices were eroded over centuries revealing the dynamic red and yellow colors. Sparse greenery dots the desert floor, growing where minimal water is collected. These mountains were the subject of multiple paintings.

    a cow skull on a blanket of red, white, blue  and black
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931, oil on canvas, 101.3 x 91.1 cm) Public Domain
    a mountain landscape with muted colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Red and Yellow Cliffs (1940, oil on canvas, 61 x 91.4 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element: Georgia O'Keeffee

    Known for her paintings of voluptuous flowers and arid New Mexico landscapes, Tate Modern's retrospective showcases Georgia O'Keeffe's innovative Modernist works.

    Marion Beckett

    Marion Beckett (1886-1949) was born in New York and received a large inheritance after her father's death, allowing her to travel to Paris and study art with her lifelong friends Agnes Meyer and Katharine Rhoades. Beckett was described as exceptionally beautiful and shy. She mainly painted portraits and exhibited them at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery and her friends, where they were named "The Three Graces." Beckett and the other women were in a transitional period, with the ideals of Victorian femininity replaced by new opportunities and expectations of behavior and dress. She was successful as an artist, showing in many galleries; however, she stopped painting in 1926. Beckett was one of the women who exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show.

    She and her friends frequently visited France, visiting photographer Edward Steichen and his wife to paint their portraits. As World War I started, the German army invaded Steichen's house, and Beckett and the Steichens escaped two days before. After the war, Beckett created a studio in Paris, where she supposedly had an affair with Eduard Streichen. In 1919. Beckett was sued by Clara Steichen for $200,000, claiming "alienation of affections." 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 very artistic or theatrically to attract attention and exploit her physical charms."[2] Clara Steichen could not prove anything and lost the case. The paintings of the couple seem to reflect their feelings. Clara Steichen (7.3.5) is not facing the artist, looking dejectedly to the side. The paint colors are very grayed and muted tones responding to the saddened state of the woman. Eduard Steichen (7.3.6) looks directly at the artist with a slight smile. The colors in the painting are more dynamic and alive.

    a woman sitting next to a window with a city scape
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Mrs. Eduard J. Steichen (ca 1915) Public Domain
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Eduard J. Steichen (1915) Public Domain

    Katherine Rhoades

    Born in New York City, Katherine Rhoades (1885-1965) was the daughter of a successful banker. She attended a prep school for girls and debuted as a New York City debutante. Rhoades traveled to Paris in 1908 with Marion Beckett, studied art, and successfully exhibited at a modern art exhibition. Rhoades also exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show. When she returned to the United States, Rhoades became friends with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz established gallery 291 to display American and European modern art. 291 was the first gallery in America to exhibit some famous Europeans, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. As part of Stieglitz's support for American artists, he exhibited Rhoades and Beckett together at 291, two of the few females to exhibit at the gallery. Rhoades became close friends with Stieglitz, and his group included Beckett and Georgia O'Keeffe. Rhoades' interaction with the people at 291 and the ability to exhibit her work was essential to her. She published a poem saying, "I touch four walls-I hear voices…those who have touched its world-I too went gazing, questioning, answering…I, too merged with the voices; and the walls echoed."[3]

    The painter Edward Steichen was the father of Mary. He lived and worked in Paris and the United States and was part of the American artists from gallery 291. Rhoades met Steichen when she was in Paris. Steichen had two girls, and Rhoades painted Mary Steichen (7.3.7), sitting casually in a chair. The young girl is looking straight ahead, uninterested in posing for the painting. Rhoades used a muted color palette of blues, grays, and whites. The yellow wall on one side gives the painting an off-center appearance. The green frame around the background painting is slightly jarring, the green a straight line, and the color not appearing anywhere in the painting. In the Standing Nude (7.3.8), Rhoades used a muted, dark palette. The top half of the painting blends the woman's skin color with the background, only the plant breaking up the horizontal sameness. Most of the bottom half of the painting is dark, only stopped by the lighter color of the flooring at the bottom. The woman's clothing is piled on the floor, giving the appearance she is undressing—tiny reflections of light bouncing off the handles on the otherwise dark cabinets. Rhoades has positioned the nude woman in the center of the painting, a radical work for a female artist to paint.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Mary Steichen (ca. 1915) (Public Domain)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Standing Nude (ca. 1915) (Public Domain)

    Katherine Dreier

    Katherine Dreier (1877-1952) was born in Brooklyn, New York. Dreier's parents were German immigrants, and her father was a thriving steel businessman. Her mother was active in social movements and served as an inspiration to Dreier. Because her parents were wealthy, Dreier could travel in Europe and study art. Although frustrated by her lack of acceptance of her work, she advocated for other artists. Dreier was also a suffragette and headed several committees in different places to advocate for women and the right to vote. Both of her sisters were active in the suffragette movement. Dreier married the painter Edward Trumbull only to find out he was still married to someone else, and she had the marriage annulled.

    Dreier exhibited the Blue Bowl (7.3.9) and Landscape with Figures in Woods (7.3.10) at the famous 1913 Armory Show. Both images present a modern interpretation of Impressionism or Post-Impressionism. The woman holds a bowl close to her face, an unusual position as though waiting to have a secret unveiled. Dreier used blue as a focal color in the bowl, the delphinium flowers, and swirling throughout the woman's dress. The landscape painting was often called The Avenue, Holland providing an identified setting in the Netherlands. A few figures are strolling along the pathway on one of the many dikes built to control the abundant water in the region. The almost bare trees project the concept of winter coming, although the day in the painting appears mild as the people walk along the path. Although both paintings have different color palettes, blue is a predominant color in each one, used differently. The background in the Blue Bowl is dark and nondistinctive, almost calm, while the background in the landscape painting is filled with trees, clouds, and grasses, all very active.

    a woman in a floral dress holding a blue pot to her forehead
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): The Blue Bowl (1911, oil on canvas, 80 x 45.7 cm) (Public Domain)
    a side walk with women walking on it with trees and a stream
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Landscape with Figures in Woods (ca. 1911-1912, oil on canvas, 69.2 x 48.3 cm) (Public Domain)

    Dreier traveled to Europe to continue studying art and became interested in different modern art movements. While she was in Europe, Dreier became close friends with the artist Marcel Duchamp. Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray started the Société Anonyme to promote the concepts and ideals of more modern art styles. The Société held exhibitions, lectures, and published written information. Because of little financial support, the Société could not continue; however, it was the first museum to be entirely dedicated to modern art. Duchamp's work influenced Dreier, and she started a marked move to a more modern, avant-garde art style. Dreier described her painting, Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (7.3.11), as a "psychological portrait" of Duchamp and depicted his character through color and form.[4] Dreier used bright contrasting colors in the painting with constructs found in Cubism and Surrealism. Only Dreier knew how the different elements in the painting related to her ideas of Duchamp.

    a vibrant colored painting with different shapes
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1918, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 81.2 cm) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Elsie Driggs

    Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) was born in Connecticut but lived most of her childhood in the New York City suburbs. Her family supported her interest and talent in art, and she studied art in New York City and Europe. After she settled in New York City, she sought representation in a gallery with an owner known to disregard female painters. Driggs signed her work with her last name only as she was accepted into the gallery, not known to be a woman. However, she was successful in the gallery and became associated with a group who were part of a "Precisionist" movement. They painted buildings, bridges, and factories with an almost perfect representation of the shapes. The style by Driggs and others was accepted into galleries, the artwork of American industrial scenery, until the stock market crash in 1929. Afterward, she married, had one daughter, and abandoned her precision factory-based style to start painting landscape murals and the shapes of plants. Driggs and her family moved to a rural area, and her artwork floundered. After her husband died in 1968, she returned to the city and her painting style. Driggs is frequently considered one of the most underrated Precisionist painters.

    a black and white depiction of steam pipes
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Pittsburg (1927, oil on canvas, 87 x 102.2 cm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)
    a factory with black pipes and orange stacks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Blast Furnace (1927, oil on canvas, 83.8 x 99.1 cm) ( CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Driggs remembered traveling on a train during her childhood, where the trains passed by factories spewing smoke. The skyline through Pittsburgh was filled with images of steel mills. Driggs was intrigued with the geometric shapes formed by the mills, and she made six different paintings documenting the look and feel of industrial America. As an adult, Driggs returned to the area and sketched the buildings. Two of her paintings included Pittsburgh (7.3.12) and Blast Furnace (7.3.13). The images in the paintings were shadowy and almost gloomy, the dark gray color of the pipes seeming alive and interactive with each other. The smoke and haze block out the sun, making the paintings look like early evening. Each pipe is perfectly formed, reflecting Driggs's ability for precision. She wanted to demonstrate the building's strength constructed with simplicity and the early twentieth-century factory mentality to develop America's economy. However, one reviewer stated, "…the monolithic gray smokestacks rising above the haze seem inescapably dark and menacing, suggesting that Driggs may have been questioning America's newfound faith in technology."[5]

    Interactive Element: Elsie Driggs

    Elsie Driggs, Blast Furnaces, 1927, oil on canvas, 83.8 x 99.1 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

    Julia Morgan

    Julia Morgan (1872-1957) had a long and prolific career as an architect and engineer, designing over 700 buildings, including the famous Hearst Castle. She was born in California, and her family lived on the west coast. Her New York grandfather was wealthy and helped support the family. When her grandfather died, her grandmother moved to California to live with the Morgan family, bringing her wealth. Morgan excelled in school and attended the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in civil engineering. During this period, none of the schools on the West Coast had an architectural program, so she chose engineering. As a senior, one of her professors encouraged her to go to Paris and attend the L’École Nationale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts. Morgan went to Paris and twice failed to pass the entrance exam, learning they failed her deliberately because they "did not want to encourage young girls…Morgan wrote, "I'll try again next time anyway, even without any expectations, just to show 'les jeunes filles' are not discouraged." [6] She was finally admitted, advancing through the first level in half the time. Morgan was the first female to obtain a certificate from Beaux-Arts in architecture.

    After she received her certificate in 1904, she returned to California and opened an office in California. After the earthquake and extensive fire, she received commissions helping to rebuild San Francisco, including the Fairmont Hotel. On this job, she continued to receive comments about women who should not be architects. Her success at the Fairmont led to multiple other commissions. From the time she opened her office until she retired in 1951, she designed and supervised the construction of over 700 projects, a few in other states. Still, the majority of the projects were in California. She designed sixteen YWCA buildings, private houses, Asilomar in Monterey, and many structures for the Hearst family.

    Interactive Element: Julia Morgan

    Architects, authors, and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein celebrate the enduring legacy of Julia Morgan, FAIA, the first great American female architect. Morgan was posthumously awarded the 2014 AIA Gold Medal at AIA Convention 2014 in Chicago, where Morgan's grandniece, Ellen North, and her daughter Lauren Woodland, accepted the award, followed by remarks from Beverly Willis, FAIA.

    In 1919, she met with William Randolph Hearst as a potential client to build his concept of San Simeon; he wanted something different than the usual California style. The commission for Hearst Castle (7.3.14), which he called 'the ranch,' led to a long-time association between Morgan and Hearst from 1919 to the mid-1940s.

    a large white castle on a hill
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Hearst Castle, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Morgan designed La Casa Grande, with 115 rooms as the main building; its construction started in 1922 and continued until 1947, a unfinished building. Guesthouses (Casa del Mar, Casa del Sol, and Casa del Monte) were connected to Casa Grande by walkways and terraces. The façade of Casa Grande (7.3.15) is four stories, similar to a building in Seville. Although constructed with concrete, the façade was covered with stone. The large overhang was made with teak Morgan found in San Francisco, purchased initially for a ship. Casa Grande did not have an elegant staircase leading to the upper floors, only elevators, and stairs. Morgan used the latest technology; a sound system wired throughout the building, radio stations, and eighty telephones located around the buildings and grounds and interconnected with a PBX switchboard, all advanced concepts for the period.

    a fountain in front of a large white building with two steeples
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Casa Grande, CC BY-SA 3.0

    In addition to the major set of buildings with their rooms and guest suites, the site also included indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a theater for movies and live shows, tennis courts, a billiard room, a wine cellar, two libraries, a zoo, dog kennels, airplane landing strip and hanger, thoroughbred horse ranch, riding trails, and a five-mile pergola.[7] Based on the continual requirements by Hearst, the site continued to grow as Morgan designed the buildings and surrounding environments. Hearst did not want the native oaks touched, so work was sited around them; broad walkways and gardens connected the buildings and spaces were designed for Hearst's art and antiques. One of the impressive rooms was the library (7.3.16). The ceiling came from a 16th-century house in Spain. Morgan combined ceiling parts from different rooms into a single ceiling for the grand room. The large fireplace was made from carved limestone. Hearst had collected books and antiques for a long time and incorporated over 5,000 books into this room, adding over 3,000 to his study. Many of the books were special collections, first editions, or books signed by the authors. Hearst's extensive collection of ancient Greek vases was incorporated into the room's décor. The ceiling in the billiard room (7.3.17) was from a 15th-century Spanish building adorned with images of the courtly life of the time. On the wall hung an immense Flemish tapestry millefleurs (thousands of flowers) dated around the 1500s and woven with wool and silk. The billiard room was a popular gathering spot for guests to play billiards or pool, and instead of the room being the customary domain of male guests, both men and women assembled and played.

    a large room with tapestries on the walls and large tables and fireplaces
    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): Library, CC BY-SA 4.0
    a large room with to pool tables and couches
    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): Billiard Room, Public Domain

    The site had two pools, the Roman pool (7.3.18) made for indoor swimming, and the outside Neptune pool (7.3.19). The Roman pool was built underneath the tennis courts and adorned with mosaics made from Murano glass tiles and gold leaf. Despite its extraordinary beauty, the elegant pool was located farther away and unused. The Neptune pool was called the most luxurious and extravagant pool ever constructed. The pool is located along the hill's edge and bounded by a low wall—integrated concrete struts throughout the pool to allow movement during an earthquake. The pool started as a decorative pond and expanded as a swimming pool. Extensive statuary, temple, and columns were added to complete the image of ancient Greece. The immense pool holds almost 350,000 gallons of water. Seventeen changing rooms were constructed nearby to accommodate the guests.

    an indoor pool with statues reflecting the blue pool
    Figure \(\PageIndex{18}\): Roman Pool, CC BY-SA 4.0
    Figure \(\PageIndex{19}\): Neptune Pool, CC BY 2.0
    Interactive Element: Hearst Castle

    Fly over the mansion William Randolph Hearst built and George Bernard Shaw deemed "The place God would've built if he had the money."

    [1] Retrieved from

    [2] Retrieved from

    [3] Retrieved from

    [4] Retrieved from

    [5] Retrieved from

    [6] Retrieved from

    [7] Retrieved from

    This page titled 7.4: American Modernism (1910-1935) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

    • Was this article helpful?