Rapid industrialization of cities and the nation’s expansion westward. The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. The rise of Fascism in Europe and America’s involvement in two global wars. During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced tremendous social and cultural change. In response, many artists developed a uniquely American aesthetic based on realism and American subject matter, from towering skyscrapers and verdant landscapes to floral still lifes and locomotives, sheep shearers, and cement finishers. Artists explored both urban scenes and images of the heartland, reinforcing an American identity centered on working-class values.
Crossroads: American Scene Prints from Thomas Hart Benton to Grant Wood focuses on early twentieth-century American culture and society through lithographs, etchings, and wood engravings. The fifty-seven prints in this exhibition, produced between 1905 and 1955, encompass a broad range of art styles collectively known as “American Scene.” Artists explored changes in urban life; conveyed a romantic vision of the American countryside; examined the grim realities of the Great Depression; and responded to European ideals and conflict with American morals and beliefs.
Printmaking flourished during the 1930s. Through the Federal Art Project, a unit of the US Government’s Works Progress Administration, artists were paid a weekly stipend and given access to expensive government printing presses. With the founding of Associated American Artists in 1934, even more artists could produce prints for relatively low prices—an art for the people—to be offered for sale in department stores and via mail order catalogues. Federal sponsorship and public support gave American artists an unprecedented sense of purpose and acknowledged the important contributions artists make to society.
Donated to SJMA in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the prints in this exhibition will be on view together for the first time since 1985. Artists featured include Peggy Bacon, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Phillip Cheney, Don Freeman, Leon Gilmour, Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Clare Leighton, Louis Lozowick, Luigi Lucioni, Reginald Marsh, John Sloan, Charles Surendorf, Diane Thorne, and Grant Wood, among others.
(Photo: Hart Benton, Cradling Wheat, 1939, Lithograph and ink, 9 ½ × 12 inches, Gift of Josephine Chandler, San José)