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 in art 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 urban and rural America.

29-405W.jpgThe emphasis on a uniquely American experience was a response to the economic and social upheavals of the Great Depression. Artists like Raphael Soyer and Herman More painted straightforward scenes of the urban and industrial Northeast. Others, like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, sought to convey the promise and underlying character of the nation. Called “Regionalists,” these artists used rural and small-town scenes to express America’s enduring strength and power.

In the 1930s, many American Scene artists, including George Rickey, were employed by federally funded relief programs, such as the Works 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. Art that appealed to a broad segment of the population met the program’s democratic impulse, and the American Scene became the unofficial style of the WPA.

Thomas Hart Benton, Spring Storm, 1958, tempera on board, City of Davenport Art Collection, Museum purchase: Friends of Art Acquisition Fund, 1988.12, ©T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton, Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Herman More, Davenport Factory, ca. 1928, oil on canvas, Museum purchase: Friends of Acquisition Fund, 1929.405.