The American Regionalism Movement: Shaping the Art of the Nation

American Regionalism Hero

Following the first World War, new ideas and beliefs emerged across industrialized and advanced Western societies. This new way of thinking sparked the Modernism movement, which marked a shift away from traditional art, literature, philosophy, religion, and a way of life in general.

However, unlike their European counterparts across the pond, Americans steered away from Modernism and urban abstraction during the Great Depression. It was during this time that American Regionalism was born, a movement that embraced detailed figurative and narrative works in art, or ‘art-as-storytelling.’ 

What is Regionalism in Art History?

American Regionalists wanted their works to be accessible to the public. They depicted familiar subjects, which yielded mainstream popularity across various audiences. Common subjects in Regionalist lithographs, illustrations, paintings, and other forms of art included delightful scenes of small-town America – particularly in the Midwest or the American heartland.

Regionalism art exhibited various styles, but overall, works of this movement were conservative and traditionalist. This not only appealed to American ideals but also served as a clear rejection of dominating French artists of the era. 

Depictions of urban and rural America, and the rejection of European art like the School of Paris and abstract styles, came to better form a type of art that was solely American. After all, Modernism was not clearly defined in American art prior to World War II, so American artists still searched for art that was uniquely theirs. 

Many American artists of the era chose to follow academic realism, depicting everyday realistic scenes of American towns and cities. American Regionalism became one of the dominant national art movements in the 1930s. American Regionalism art prevailed alongside Social Realism art, which aimed to shed light on the socio-political conditions of the working class (think: Grant Wood’s famous painting, American Gothic, 1930). 

American Scene Painting

In the 1930s, American art as Modernism was classified into three separate categories: Regionalism, Social Realism, and abstract art. But Regionalism and Social Realism were merged together under the umbrella term American Scene Painting in the 1940s. Then, there were two camps: American Scene Painting, supported by conservative, anti-Modernists, and abstract art.

Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood, 1931. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

American Scene painters lived in the countryside and called out social, economic, and political problems of the era in their works, often with hints of romanticism and nationalism. Meanwhile, abstract artists lived in urban areas like New York City and included artists like Alfred Stieglitz. While some focused on life prior to industrialization with local scenes of American cities, small towns, and farmlands (American Regionalists), others (Social Realists) sought to make radical political statements.

Examples of American Regionalism art: the Regionalist Triumvarate

Some of the best examples of American Regionalism were created by what’s known as the ‘Regionalist Triumvarate’ or the three most renowned and respected artists of the movement. These were: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. All three studied in Paris but spent their lives carving out a truly American form of art. The solution, they believed, to the Great Depression and the nation’s ‘urban problems’ lied in returning focus to America’s roots: agriculture.

Grant Wood

Grant Wood (1891-1942) is best known for his earlier-mentioned painting, American Gothic, 1930, which is now world-renowned and hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally from Iowa, he was also the writer of Revolt Against the City, a pamphlet published in 1935 that rejected Parisian culture and art – and Americans were looking to their hometowns, and their own culture, in buying art. 


American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Hart Benton

Missouri-born painter, illustrator, and lithographer Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was most famous for his murals. He painted America’s working-class with social criticism and rejected European modern art. When Regionalism began to decline in popularity, Benton became a teacher at Kansas City Art Insitute, where he went on to teach and mentor artist Jackson Pollock


People of Chilmark (Figure Composition) by Thomas Hart Benson, 1920. Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Steuart Curry

John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) started his career as an artist illustrating “Wild West” stories. However, the Kansas native was soon hired to paint murals after he received more training. The Department of Justice and the Department of Interior under the Federal Arts Patronage in the New Deal commissioned Curry. The artist believed in painting what he loved, and that art should depict everyday life, telling a story. Following this strong belief, he often painted his home in the Midwest. 


Baptism in Kansas by John Steuart Curry, 1928. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other Notable Artists of American Regionalist Art

  • John Rogers Cox (1915-1990)

Gray and Gold by John Rogers Cox, 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Margot Peet (1903-1995)
Culture Barstow Mothers Meeting Margot Peet

Culture (Barstow Mother’s Meeting) by Margot Peet,
1935 – 1936. Source:

  • Edna Reindel (1894-1990)
_A Woman at Lockheed Fastening the Plastic Canopy of the P-38, from the series “Women at War”, by Edna Reindel, 1943

A Woman at Lockheed Fastening the Plastic Canopy of the P-38, from the series “Women at War”, by Edna Reindel, 1943. Source: Google Arts & Culture.

  • Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

Winter 1946 by Andrew Wyeth, 1946. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Decline of American Regionalism

After reaching the height of its popularity between 1930-1935, at the start of World War II, when figurative art was used as propaganda for totalitarian governments, Regionalism came to symbolize retrogression and political problems. 

As World War II ended, both American Regionalism and Social Realism art lost its status. The movement was criticized for its lack of development. This was largely due to its subject matter, primarily unchanging rural landscapes. Abstract Expressionism, in turn, came to best put a definition to the long undefined American Modernism. It replaced American Regionalism in popularity and prominence.

Continued Influence and Popularity of the Movement

However, we continue to celebrate the American Regionalist movement for its influence. It gave American artists to gain confidence without the influence of European schools of art, helping to establish American art. Regionalism also served as a bridge between abstract art and academic realism, and ultimately, a bridge for American Abstract Expressionism (despite its attempt to replace European abstraction). From the rise in American Abstract Expressionism came the widely celebrated artist Jackson Pollock, encouraged and led by Thomas Hart Benson. Other American artists who succeeded Regionalists include Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth.

Today, Regionalism continues to influence American pop culture. It can be found in movies, ads, novels, and children’s books, and collectors continue to buy works at auction from the short-lived yet everlasting movement that truly helped shape American art as we know it.

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