The American Scene: A Portrait of Everyday LIfe


The term “American Scene” describes the work of artists who gravitated towards realistic representation and American subject matter during the 1920s and 1930s. More of a general trend than an organized movement, American Scene painting encompassed a wide range of political and social beliefs. For the most part, these artists rejected European modernism and abstraction in favor of imagery that documented life in rural and urban America.

The emphasis on a uniquely American experience was a response to the economic and social upheavals of the Great Depression.  “Regionalists,” like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry used rural scenes to convey the promise and underlying character of the nation. The Stone City Art Colony, set among the rolling hills of Iowa and co-founded by Wood, encouraged Regionalist values among artists like John Bloom and Marvin Cone.

In the 1930s, many American Scene artists, including George Rickey, were employed by federally-funded relief programs, such as the Work Progress Administration (WPA). Created in an effort to provide employment opportunities to artists and boost public morale, these programs commissioned murals for post offices and other public buildings. The American Scene’s broad appeal met the program’s democratic goals and became the unofficial style of the New Deal.

Doris Lee (American, 1905-1983), New House, 1940s, oil on canvas, Museum purchase; Friends of Art Acquisition Fund, 2016.7