A movement which grew from a desire to represent a more easily recognisable reality, at a time when much of modern art was turning abstract, Social realism built on earlier waves of realist movement and the Ashcan School to create art which documented everyday reality for working class and poor people in Depression-era America. It sought to critique the ruling structures that created the economic and social issues, and found powerful impact in the world of documentary photography, as well as producing some great artworks.
The artist behind one of the masterpieces of social realism, American Gothic, Grant Wood was a regionalist painter focused on the rural American Midwest. Born in Iowa, Wood studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and joined the military designing camouflage patterns. Leaving the army after the war he taught art and set up his own studio, where he began work inspired by trips to Europe and the work of impressionists, post-impressionists, and Jan van Eyck. Reacting against abstraction he became part of the regionalist and social realist movements, where he produced American Gothic to immediate acclaim and recognition; it has become one of the most recognisable paintings in the world and a hugely popular art print.
Born in the Russian Empire, Shahn and his family moved to the USA when he was 8, settling in New York, where Shahn would eventually begin work as a lithographer. He studied art and travelled through Europe taking in work by modern artists including Matisse, Dufy, Rouault, Picasso, and Klee, but found modern European styles didn’t fit with his talent, and pursued a realist style which could carry social dialogues. He was offered an opportunity to travel the south, documenting it in photos, and began being commissioned for murals, which filled much of his work through the Depression period, and went on to be a consistent anti-war critic in his art through World War 2.
Born to two painters, including a father who’s work depicted modern American industry, he grew up in an artists’ colony and studied at Yale Art School where he excelled in illustration. Starting professional work as a cartoonist for publications including the New Yorker, he began painting seriously around the same time, visiting Europe to take in the work of masters like Raphael, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and he began incorporating Renaissance elements such as compositions of groups of people with architecture, into his developing social realist style. He worked with watercolours and art print engravings, becoming known for depictions of burlesque and vaudeville acts, Coney Island, hobos on the Bowery, and crowded New York city street scenes.
John Steuart Curry
Another regionalist who often depicted rural life in his native Kansas, Curry was known for paintings and art prints which often featured creative brushwork depicting movement and emotions. After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago he began work as an illustrator but turned to painting after moving to an art colony and travelling Europe taking in the art of Courbet, Daumier, Titian, and Rubens, then travelled Kansas painting it, and taking in what he saw as a man made ecological disaster. Like other Regionalists Curry critiqued industrial mechanisation and centralisation with a nostalgic look at rural life, which was nevertheless full of downbeat subjects that people in Kansas were rarely comfortable with.
Thomas Hart Benton
The third of the great regionalist painters, Benton was born into a political family but rebelled against their hopes that he would also go into politics, and began working as a cartoonist, before going into the navy to work on camouflage through the war. Post war he declared himself an enemy of modernism and focused on a naturalistic and realistic style, touring America sketching the things he saw for future paintings. He became widely known for his mural work often in official buildings, where he would cause controversy depicting elements of American life most people didn’t want to face, such as the KKK and slavery. Producing anti-Nazi work through the Second World War, Benton would keep painting and teaching art well into the 1970s.
Perhaps the best known name on the list, Edward Hopper began drawing at a young age taking an interest in capturing the fall of light and shadow; he initially worked in an impressionist style, even as close friends became part of the Ashcan school. Working as an illustrator he experimented with palettes and eventually began to drift towards realism and began to be noticed for his etched art prints of city life. He continued painting and by the Depression era had broken through, with major art galleries and museums buying his work, much of which became iconic representations of the loneliness in modern city life, and he became a huge influence on artists like de Kooning, Rothko, and numerous great filmmakers.