The term American Regionalism describes a realist and anti-modernist movement of the 1920s and 1930s that focused on describing the people and landscape of the American heartland. Helmed by the so-called triumvirate of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) of Missouri, Grant Wood (1891-1942) of Iowa, and John Steuart Curry (1892-1942) of Kansas. Regionalism eschewed the abstraction introduced by the Parisian school of art in favor of a more naturalistic and accessible style of art and subject matter. Regionalists exhorted artists to paint what they knew best, objecting to an art that turned away the local environment and “the living world of active men and women.”
In this respect, Regionalism was very much a product of its times, reflecting and reacting to the unease and instability felt by the nation in the wake of World War I and the subsequent stock market crash of 1929. The sense of nationalism and isolationism fostered by the economic turmoil and the aftermath of a devastating war prompted a retreat to an art that celebrated what was uniquely American. Reassuring images of America’s heroic past and idealized scenes of rural America secure in its wealth and power helped assuage the anxiety felt by the public. Indeed, the emphasis in Regionalist art on the local and homegrown lent itself well to the work projects sponsored by the government to help alleviate the economic crisis and boost morale. Grant Wood, John Bloom, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry all created public murals that promoted American culture and celebrated its history.
Despite the nationalistic bent of its rhetoric, Regionalism was not in practice a coordinated movement. The art produced by the so-called Regionalist artists differed greatly in style and content. Grant Wood and John Bloom glorified life in the rural Midwest while John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton did not shirk from revealing the more violent and dreary side of nature and life on the farm. Marvin Cone did not ascribe to the ideology of Regionalism and was at best a reluctant member of the movement. Moreover, the very artists who publicly repudiated the influence of European art and perpetuated the image of stereotypical Midwestern life all had formative experiences in Europe. Regionalism ceased to be popular in the 1940s when a more international spirit prevailed during and after the Second World War.