Art History Lab

Uncovering the Forgotten Artists of the 1930s: Celebrating America’s Overlooked Artistic Achievements

The American Scene Art Movement of the 1930s

Art movements come and go, but some like the American Scene have had lasting impacts on the artistic world. The American Scene is probably one of the least studied yet critically-important movements in American art history.

This movement emerged during the Great Depression and quickly became a platform for American artists to express their ideologies and artistic styles while capturing the essence of American life. In this article, we will explore the American Scene Art Movement and its impact on American art history.

Opposition to European Modernism and Commitment to Authentically American Subject Matter

In the 1920s, European modernism dominated the American art scene. However, American artists were unsatisfied with copying European styles and began exploring authentically American themes.

In the 1930s, American artists formed the American Scene art movement, which rejected the dogmatic formalism of European modernism and embraced distinctly American subjects. The American Scene artists sought to create art that was more rooted in the American experience.

This included depictions of ordinary life in the US, landscapes, rural communities, and urban areas. They were committed to portraying the unique characteristics of American life, and they did this by painting images that varied from folk cultures and native crafts to regional diversity.

These artworks highlighted the dignity of working-class people and common American life.

Retreat to American Culture during the Great Depression

The Great Depression hit America hard, and with it, came a great artistic shift. The American Scene movement was also an attempt to move away from the conflict-ridden environment of modernism and to create a unifying force that bridged the divide between social classes and ideologies.

The American Scene art movement provided a unique sense of national identity and unity as the artists portrayed American life in all its diversity. The artwork provided an escape from the daily grind and embodied hope for a better future.

Art Styles and Artists of the 1930s

The American Scene art movement itself was marked by various art styles and the artists who represented them.

Emphasis on Native Topics Produced in A Realistic Manner

The Regionalist group was one of the main groups within the American Scene movement. These artists captured the regional diversity of the US, including paintings of farms, prairies, and small towns.

They emphasized native topics without exaggerating or romanticizing them. They aimed to capture the reality of life in the region.

Other artists within the American Scene movement practiced a realistic style of art that portrayed everyday life in the US. Urban Realists captured the urban environment, while Social Realists depicted the struggles of working-class people during the Great Depression.

Different Groups of Artists and Their Ideologies: Regionalists, Urban Realists, Social Realists

The Regionalists group, as we have mentioned, focused on regional diversity and a realistic depiction of life in the region. These artists celebrated the uniqueness of American culture while criticizing the effects of industrialization on rural communities.

Urban Realists, on the other hand, depicted the city life in all its complexity. They produced artworks that highlighted the rapid urbanization and the life of the working-class people in the city.

Social Realists emphasized the struggles of working-class people during the Great Depression. These artists were left-leaning and sometimes delved into controversial political subjects.


The American Scene art movement of the 1930s was a reaction to the dominance of European modernism on the American art landscape. The movement sought to establish an authentically American style of art that celebrated the diverse cultures, places, and themes that were uniquely American.

The movement brought together artists who shared a commitment to capturing the essence of American life across different regions. It remains a crucial part of American art history, and its influence can still be seen in contemporary American art.

Government Support for Art in the 1930s

The Great Depression of the 1930s forced the US government to respond with several initiatives aimed at reviving the economy. Governmental support for the arts was one such initiative, aimed at providing employment opportunities for artists and stimulating the art industry.

In this section, we will explore the government’s support for the arts and its impact on the art landscape of the 1930s.

Employment of Artists in Public Art Initiatives

The government’s public works programs provided jobs for thousands of artists during the Great Depression, enabling them to make a living through painting. Public art initiatives employed artists to produce murals, frescoes, and paintings for public buildings, schools, and transportation terminals.

These initiatives also produced artworks that represent American history, society, and culture. Mural painting was one of the most prominent public art initiatives of the 1930s.

Murals were frequently painted on the walls of post offices, libraries, and other public buildings. Murals that depicted the struggles of the working class and the beauty of rural life were particularly prevalent.

The murals often depicted agrarian life, industrial production, and cultural heritage. Besides mural painting, the government also commissioned artists to paint on canvases for various public spaces.

New York City was one of the primary beneficiaries of the government’s largesse. Alongside the Wall Street murals of 1939, the government commissioned Edward Hopper to paint murals for the New York World’s Fair.

Prominent Artists of the 1930s Supported by the Government

Alongside the lesser-known artists who benefited from government support, several famous artists also received government commissions. Thomas Hart Benton, best known for his Regionalist murals, was commissioned to paint murals in a Missouri courthouse, providing employment to several other artists.

Grant Wood, famous for his American Gothic painting, was commissioned to paint murals in Iowa, while John Steuart Curry painted murals in the Kansas State Capitol building. Reginald Marsh, a social realist painter, painted murals in the New York City subway system.

The works produced by these prominent artists, together with those of lesser-known artists, captured the essence of American life during the Great Depression. These paintings are still on display in public buildings and museums around the US and continue to inspire new generations of artists.

Overlooked Generation of 1930s Artists

Although the government’s support for the arts in the 1930s provided numerous employment opportunities for artists, many artists from that time have been overlooked in art history circles. Their valuable contributions have remained largely unacknowledged and forgotten over the years.

In this section, we will explore the overlooked generation of 1930s artists, their achievements, and the need to reassess their works.

Neglect of Achievements in Art History Circles

The achievements of artists from the 1930s have been overlooked, and there are several reasons for this neglect. Firstly, the artists who received government support were predominantly from specific regions.

These included the Midwest and California, and as a result, their works were mainly distributed in those regions. Secondly, the artworks were mainly intended for public buildings, not for galleries and museums.

Therefore, most art critics and historians did not pay them much attention.

Revisiting and Reassessing the Work of the 1930s Artists

Despite the neglect of the 1930s artists’ achievements, several institutions are now working to reassess and revisit the works of the overlooked generation of 1930s artists. The US government has launched several initiatives to recover and protect the works created during the Great Depression.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum, for instance, has several pieces by lesser-known artists from the 1930s on display, including those by Alma Thomas, who was one of the few African American artists who received commissions during the Great Depression. Moreover, galleries and museums are now featuring exhibitions that celebrate these artists and their works.

The Frye Art Museum in Seattle and the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, for example, are celebrating the works of underrepresented artists, including those from the 1930s. In conclusion, the 1930s was a critical period in American art history.

The government’s support of the arts provided employment for artists while stimulating the art industry. Although the works of several prominent artists from that time have continued to receive recognition, others have been overlooked, mainly due to their regional distribution and the public building context of their works.

However, institutions and organizations are now working to reassess and celebrate the achievements of the artists of the 1930s.

Characteristics of Key 1930s Artists

The 1930s was a pivotal period in American art history that saw the emergence of several artists working in different styles. In this section, we will explore some of the key artists of the period, their works, and their characteristics.

Edward Hopper: Thoughtful, Somber Attitude and Local Topics

Edward Hopper was perhaps one of the most well-known artists of the 1930s. His works often featured a thoughtful, somber attitude, and his themes focused on individuals in the US, often in urban settings.

Hopper’s paintings depicted the isolation and melancholy that pervaded American life during the Great Depression. He painted several local topics, including gas stations, motels, and diners.

Thomas Hart Benton: Thematic Concentration on Everyday People and Folklore

Thomas Hart Benton was a renowned American Regionalist artist of the 1930s. Through his art, he concentrated on everyday people and folklore.

Benton’s works often portrayed the lives of rural Americans and their struggles against modernization. His art was dedicated to a simpler time in American history, where people lived their lives according to their culture and tradition.

Reginald Marsh: Watcher of People and Vibrant, Documentary-Style Works

Reginald Marsh was an artist who was known for being a watcher of people. His works were done in a documentary-style, which made them vibrant and engaging.

Marsh focused on the lives of the urban working class and the daily happenings in the city. His artworks depicted dance halls, Coney Island, and other New York City landmarks.

Marsh’s work was often compared to that of Diego Rivera and his straightforward approach to painting. Ben Shahn: Narrative Art Centered on Social and Political Justice

Ben Shahn, born in Lithuania, was a painter who created several narrative artworks with social and political justice themes.

His paintings often depicted the struggles of the working class and the need for social reform. Shahn’s art captured the essence of the American spirit, thereby giving people a platform to voice their thoughts and opinions.

Other Notable 1930s Artists

Mary Fife: Subject Matter Centered on Places and People, Part of the 14th Street School

Mary Fife was an artist who was part of the 14th Street School, which was a community of artists working in Manhattan in the 1930s. Fife’s subject matter often centered on places and people, especially urban landscapes.

Her art captured the essence of everyday people and their experiences, thereby making her art relatable to many people. Daniel R.

Celentano: Depicted Everyday Life in Italian Harlem and Industrial Themes

Daniel R. Celentano was a painter of Italian-American descent, who mostly depicted everyday life in his community of Italian Harlem.

He also painted industrial themes, and his paintings captured the essence of everyday life in the city during the Great Depression. Beatrice Cuming: Paintings of American Countryside and Industrial Landscapes

Beatrice Cuming was a realist painter whose art focused on landscapes, especially of both rural and industrial sceneries.

Her paintings captured the essence of life in America during the 1930s, portraying the beauty of the countryside as well as the ingenuity of the industrial landscape. Leon Bibel: Realist Painter Focused on Social Inequalities and Political Issues

Leon Bibel was a realist painter who was focused on social inequalities and political issues.

His paintings often featured themes that captured the struggles of the working class. Bibel was known for his use of bold colors, and his art has been hailed as a powerful representation of the period.


Conclusion, the 1930s witnessed several artists of varying styles and backgrounds. From Edward Hopper’s thoughtful and somber attitudes, to Benton’s concentration on everyday people and folklore, the artwork of the period was diverse and meaningful.

Moreover, several lesser-known artists of the period such as Mary Fife, Daniel R. Celentano, Beatrice Cuming, and Leon Bibel also made significant contributions to the American art scene.

In conclusion, the American Scene art movement of the 1930s, characterized by its opposition to European modernism and commitment to authentically American subject matter, played a crucial role in shaping American art history. The movement allowed artists to retreat to American culture during the Great Depression and create artworks that captured the essence of American life.

The government’s support for the arts provided employment for artists, resulting in significant public art initiatives and the recognition of prominent artists such as Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, and Ben Shahn. Additionally, the overlooked generation of 1930s artists, including Mary Fife, Daniel R.

Celentano, Beatrice Cuming, and Leon Bibel, are now being reassessed and their achievements celebrated. It is important to recognize the impact of these artists and their paintings, as they provide us with a glimpse into the unique challenges and cultural identity of the 1930s.

Through their artwork, we can find inspiration, reflection, and a deeper understanding of American life during that period. The legacy of the American Scene art movement continues to influence contemporary American art and remains a testament to the resilience and creativity of artists in the face of adversity.

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