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Painting in 1930s America: 10 Iconic Artworks at the Art Institute of Chicago

Picture of Elizabeth Newhart
Elizabeth Newhart
Updated: 10 August 2016
The Art Institute of Chicago is currently hosting America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, which highlights notable works of art in America following the Great Depression. This special exhibit runs until September 18th, 2016. Read on for a summary of 10 iconic artworks on display that serve as a varied glimpse into this troubling decade in 20th century American history.

 

American Gothic  –  Grant Wood, 1930

This world-famous painting emerged at the very beginning of the 1930s, directly following the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. The period’s large collection of small-town rural art reflects the nostalgic feeling amongst Americans for a simpler, bygone era at this moment in time. Though recognized by many, American Gothic is often mis-identified as depicting a farming husband-and-wife pair, while the subjects are actually meant to be father and daughter.

 

American Gothic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American Gothic, ©Wikimedia Commons

Early Sunday Morning  –  Edward Hopper, 1930

Edward Hopper was a major player in the 1930s art scene, and this image of a worn-down New York street perfectly portrayed the immediate aftershocks of the stock market crash. The mood is subdued and vacant, with no signs of life or commerce in the windows. The town is licking its proverbial wounds as the new decade is just getting started.

 

Early Sunday Morning, ©Shinya Suzuki/Flickr

Early Sunday Morning | ©Shinya Suzuki/Flickr 

 

Hogs Killing a Snake  –  John Steuart Curry, about 1930

Though there was a great movement towards rural, nature-based art in the 1930s, the majority of artists tended to focus on human subjects and activities, such as farming. But John Steuart Curry branched out with Hogs Killing a Snake. The violent and animalistic killing of a snake in front of an apple tree is a religious allegory – it is another iteration of the Garden of Eden.

tct 1930s 3

Hogs Killing a Snake | Courtesy of Elizabeth Newhart

Roustabouts  –  Joe Jones, 1934

Roustabouts served as an American call to action from self-proclaimed communist Joe Jones. He saw his art as a form of activism, and depicted this scene of black labourers serving under a white man to bring attention to the rough conditions of these workers in industrialized America.

Roustabouts, courtesy of Elizabeth Newhart

Roustabouts | Courtesy of Elizabeth Newhart

The Fleet’s In!  –  Paul Cadmus, 1934

Though seemingly an innocent portrayal of navy men socializing with locals, The Fleet’s In! ended up causing Paul Cadmus quite a bit of controversy. Cadmus was gay, and in his painting he hinted at a homosexual relationship between a suited man offering a cigarette to a sailor. After being censored from a government-sponsored exhibit the same year it debuted, The Fleet’s In! quickly gained quick fame and notoriety.

 

The Fleet's In!, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Fleet’s In! | ©Wikimedia Commons

 

Thanksgiving  –  Doris Lee, about 1935

By 1935, the Great Depression was in full swing and spirits were quite low across the United States. Thanksgiving became an important holiday to Americans, because it gave them a chance to pull together family and friends and be thankful for what they had in such tough and trying times. Doris Lee, an Illinois native, sought to capture that feeling in this bustling kitchen scene.

 

Thanksgiving, courtesy of Flickr: Esther Westerveld

Thanksgiving | ©Esther Westerveld/Flickr

 

Saturday Night  –  Archibald J. Motley, 1935

The vibrant scenes in Archibald J. Motley’s paintings are set in Chicago, as he was a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His subjects were African-American communities around the city, as shown in his jazz nightclub scene in Saturday Night. His overtly caricatured style was unique for the time, but nodded to the historically stereotypical and negative representations of African Americans in media that he worked to reverse.

Saturday Night, courtesy of Elizabeth Newhart

Saturday Night | Courtesy of Elizabeth Newhart

 

Erosion No. 2—Mother Earth Laid Bare  –  Alexandre Hogue, 1936

Alexandre Hogue focused much of his art on the Dust Bowl region, and in this particular work, the meaning is plainly evident. Mother Nature/Earth is represented in corporeal form as an American farm landscape, decimated by both natural and human forces. The transitional era of the 1930s was wrought with conflict between nature and machine, and artists of the period were driven by a compelling need to depict this struggle.

Erosion No. 2--Mother Earth Laid Bare, courtesy of Flickr: Brian Wright

Erosion No. 2–Mother Earth Laid Bare | ©Brian Wright/Flickr

 

Bombardment  –  Philip Guston, 1937

Bombardment’s round canvas immediately stands out among the squares and rectangles in any gallery, but it is not the only thing that makes it unique. Philip Guston created this image “in response to the vicious bombing raid of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War by German and Italian forces in April 1937,” according to the AIC. It is a poignant and emotional portrayal of a detonating bomb, using shape as well as colors and movement to convey an almost palpable message on the effects of violence.

Bombardment, courtesy of Flickr: Karen Green

Bombardment | ©Karen Green/Flickr 

Gas  –  Edward Hopper, 1940

This widely known and praised painting by Edward Hopper displays a multitude of juxtapositions within its deceptively simple scene. The setting is dusk, teetering between periods of night and day. The gas station’s location off an abandoned country road suggests a balance between nature and commercial industry, and though it appears dark and somber, the painting is actually flooded with both fading natural light and the artificial bulbs from the station. It depicts America at a crossroads on the cusp of the 1930s and the subsequently tumultuous time of World War II and the modern era.