Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889. His family had a notable political history: his father being a congressman. Benton’s family had a political career planed for him from the beginning. To this he always rebelled, as he had a natural inclination towards art. In 1907 the artist began his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. However two years later he decided to travel to Paris to continue his studies in the capital of the classic academic art. He learned many European styles and tried them all by turns, but neither of them would connect with his personal vision.
It was the beginning of the 20th century and the esthetic perception of people was confused by the successive parading of many different movements that lived shortly and were replaced by new ideas. The world of art was then unsteady and in constant motion. Benton eventually eliminated all the modern influence and turned to his own style, a mixture of other European visions, that blended together to create an exclusive, very personal approach to the realistic idea. He decided to look for his own style as he returned to the States four years later.
He worked as a draftsman for the United States Navy in 1919 and this period changed his technique dramatically. During this stage he created many sketches portraying ship life, which gave him a new perspective and subject for his future work: the use of simple life scenes as theme for his pictures. The artist adopted the new style of Scene Painting and began to create works of art in a more realistic and traditional perspective, joining the style known as Regionalism, that was taking over the American interest of the era.
Between the 1920 and 1940 there was an artistic phenomenon in America known as Scene Painting. It was a style of naturalist tendency that evolved from the instability that World War I caused into the mentality of people. Many American artists began to reject the modern esthetic ideas that migrated from Europe to New York and they started to pursue a return to the academic vision. The search for realistic representation drew their attention towards urban and rural scenes.
Most of those works bring together the balance between the romanticism of the American everyday life, combined with the nationalist vision of the period. Some pieces portray typical scenes from small towns, in a kind of social art style that displays the realism of the typical living. Some concentrated on country scenes while others preferred to illustrate the urban ambiance. The style known as Regionalism is mostly concentrated on small-town scenes. This movement grew in America in the first half of the 20th century as artists rejected the city life and turned their attention towards the rural side of society.
In a country where everything was focused on progress, modernization and fast-growing technology, the charms of rural life attracted the interest of the artists almost in the same way that Far East appeal had stimulated the creative imagination of Romanticist painters. During the Great Depression this style was greatly appreciated because it brought the spirit of the American quiet life of the heartland, at a time when people were concerned, panicked and threatened by the very modern world they had worshipped so far, that seemed to be collapsing.
The peaceful images of the country life were reassuring in the middle of the chaos. The fall of Wall Street, the Great Depression and the growing fascism in Europe brought a period of auto-reflection in America and a rising isolation towards Europe, in the artistic scene as well as the political stage. In the eyes of many Americans the abstractionism of modern European art symbolized an emergent decadence of European culture, a lack of imagination that demonstrated a poor state of spirit in the old world.
This provoked the return to the realistic art of images and the pursuit for something truly and purely American to adopt as subjects for future works. Together with social realism, the Regionalists produced images about the United States that covered subjects going from the sinister loneliness of the country fields to the arrogance and splendor of a new rural paradise. Scenes portraying country houses and farms by Charles Burchfield and the desolated images of the urban America of Edward Hopper create an intense sensation of loneliness and despair.
The expressionistic and fantastic style used in those pieces offer the paintings a desolated aspect that reminds the viewer of the boring quotidian existence of a provincial community. This is a quality that might pass as poetic, fantastic, romantic and deeply psychological. With the many changes going on in the country, the American public and artists gradually detached from the European style they had formerly admired. The vogue was no longer to accept the Parisian taste, or pursue French artists established in New York.
A new generation was searching for a pure American vision, a form of art that would illustrate the typical American scenes, from their local points of view. Regionalism was “a reaction against the European domination of American art” (Brady M. Roberts, (1995) p. 1) Between the effects of the war, the Great Depression and the fast paced modernization chase, the United States seemed like a very hard place, cold, rough and threatening.
Scene Paintings suggest the transitory lives of people that come and go, but also suggest the steady situation of characters trapped in the eternal routine of rural existence, creating a very psychological atmosphere, that contrasts with the image of the cold stone-made civilizations Americans lived in. Rural was at the same time exotic and common, and offered a great subject for artists since it combined open nature, landscape and everyday scenes. Regionalist style had its main period around the 1930 to 1935.
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