Changing Times, Changing Art

Art Martin Exhibitions

Fig. 1. Limestone Kilns, Wyandotte Chemical Company, Michigan by Robert Riggs (1896–1970), c. 1947–1948. Signed “Riggs” at lower right. Tempera on panel, 21 3⁄4 by 26 1⁄2 inches. Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan, museum purchase with funds from an anonymous donor in honor of Barbara and the late Bruce Mackey.

The opening decades of the twentieth century were tumultuous, marked by technological advances, industrialization, social and political upheaval, mass migration and immigration, and World War I. In the United States, these changes contributed to the explosive growth of cities, which became vital economic centers and the loci of new forms of cultural expression and entertainment. Artists responded to this period in varying ways, pursuing uniquely “American” art or emulating the modernist movements occurring in Europe. Indeed, this era saw the development of a wide array of genres, including social realism and the Ashcan school, regionalism, expressionism, cubism, fauvism, post-impressionism, non-objective abstraction, and the beginnings of abstract expressionism. Realist art—art that portrays recognizable imagery based on real world observation—provides a particularly unique look at this time, offering insights into the social circumstances of the day.

Fig. 2. Couple, Harlem by James Van Der Zee (1886–1983), 1932. Signed “J VanderZee” at lower right and inscribed “XVI 53/75” at lower left, both in graphite on mounting board; printed “VANDERZEE/ N.Y.C/ 1932” at lower left, under rear tire. Gelatin silver print, 7 1⁄2 by 9 1⁄4 inches. Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Michigan, purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor.

The stories and history of this period are revealed within the collections of three Michigan museums: the Flint Institute of Arts, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, and the Muskegon Museum of Art, as presented in the shared 2023–2024 exhibition American Realism: Visions of America, 1900–1950. Selections from these museums, with additional loans from the Detroit Institute of Arts, Art Bridges, and private collections, look at the first half of the twentieth century through art that sought to capture the new American experience, with a deliberate focus on the urban center.

At the start of the twentieth century, popular art movements in the United States relied to varying degrees on the realistic depiction of the subject matter. But as more artists sought innovation— changing what they painted and how they painted it, many specifically seeking to move away from landscape, the genre that had dominated American fine art in the previous century—the American art scene transformed rapidly. As both an artist and a teacher, Robert Henri played a pivotal role. Henri began his teaching career at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, where he formed friendships with a group of local artists and illustrators: William Glackens, Everett Shinn, George Luks, and John Sloan. Henri exhorted his colleagues and students to work from observations of the city, with particular focus on the people of the working and lower classes. These experiments led to what is now known as the Ashcan school, so called due to the gritty subject matter and somber paint colors. Henri’s advocacy also included interests in new stylistic genres, initially encompassing the work of artists such as Arthur Bowen Davies, with his mystical, mysterious dream scenes (Fig. 10), and Maurice Prendergast and his mosaic-like technique (Fig. 9), but also coming to include new movements from Europe such as cubism and fauvism. Henri’s greatest impact on the American art scene came after he was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1906. When several of his friends were rejected by the academy for its annual exhibition, Henri spoke publicly against the traditional nature of the organization. Together with Davies, Glackens, Ernest Lawson, Luks, Prendergast, Shinn, and Sloan, Henri put his push for new art in front of the American public. In 1908, the group, styling themselves the Eight, mounted an exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City that became famous for its challenge to the popular art tastes and institutional attitudes of the day. From 1910 to 1912, Sloan, Henri, and Walt Kuhn organized the Exhibition of Independent Artists, a non-juried show for new US artists. These exhibitions inspired the 1913 Armory Show, as organizers Kuhn, Walter Pach, and Davies were joined by members of the Eight and dozens of other artists, including Jerome Myers, Leon Dabo, Mary Cassatt, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and Gutzon Borglum. The 1913 Armory Show also featured European modernism and the works of Paul Cézanne, Wassily Kandinsky, Édouard Vuillard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redon, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and others. The exhibition, which traveled to Chicago, was a major success and marked a critical moment for American art.

Fig. 3. New York Restaurant by Edward Hopper (1882–1967), c. 1922. Signed “EDWARD HOPPER” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 24 by 30 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan, Hackley Picture Fund Purchase.
 Fig. 4. Catherine by Robert Henri (1865–1929), 1924. Signed “ROBERT HENRI” at lower left and inscribed “Catharine” on the back. Oil on canvas, 24 1⁄2 by 20 3/8 inches. The portrait depicts Catherine O’Malley (b. 1910), one of numerous Irish children the artist painted during trips to Ireland. Flint Institute of Arts, gift of James W. Sibley in memory of Harriet Cumings Sibley.
Fig. 5. Untitled (Couple) by Charles Henry Alston (1907–1977), c. 1945–1950. Oil on canvas, 28 by 32 inches. Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor.
Fig. 6. Ironing Day by Henry Wilmer Bannarn (1910–1965), 1949. Signed and dated “BANNARN/ . . . 1949” at upper left. Gouache on board, 20 by 16 inches. Flint Institute of Arts, courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, Inlander Collection.
Fig. 7. New York City Hall by Palmer Cole Hayden (1890–1973), c. 1935. Signed “Palmer Hayden” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 24 by 30 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, gift of the Drs. Osbie and Anita Herald Fund, Edward and Lois Lynch, Justice and Mrs. G. Mennen Williams, and an anonymous donor.
Fig. 8. Tunnel of Love (Spooks) by Reginald Marsh (1898–1954), 1943. Signed and dated “Reginald Marsh 1943” at center lower right. Oil on hardboard, 24 by 36 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, purchase, through the gift of the André Aerne Estate.

Cities became hubs for teaching these new realist and modernist movements. Henri went on to teach at the Art Students League of New York, which provided training for amateur and professional artists alike. The league saw numerous important artists pass through its halls as teachers and students, including Thomas Eakins, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Charles Alston. Famed American realist Edward Hopper was one of Henri’s students and, in a letter written to the Hackley Art Gallery dated January 9, 1937, echoes his teacher’s sentiments in describing his motivations for New York Restaurant (Fig. 3): “The picture ‘New York Restaurant’ was painted about 1922—not later at any rate. In a specific and concrete sense, the idea was to attempt to make visual the crowded glamour of a New York restaurant during the noon hour. I am hoping that ideas less easy to define have, perhaps, crept in also.”*

The profound changes in the art of this period reflect how much every aspect of American life had transformed in a short span of time. New improvements in the making of steel, along with the widespread availability of the telephone, the incandescent light bulb, and the automobile, changed the world. Cities were major hubs of industry, with mechanization bringing jobs for skilled and unskilled workers alike. The growth of the urban environment in the United States from 1900 to 1950 is exemplified by New York City, where the population more than doubled, from 3,437,202 to 7,891,957. In rural America, farming became industrialized and factories were built across the countryside. Artists such as Robert Riggs (Fig. 1), Charles Burchfield (Fig. 12), Lawrence McConaha, Charles Sheeler, and Zoltan Sepeshy turned their eye to factories and industrial plants across the Midwest. Within the cities, artists rendered images of skyscrapers and bridges, rooftops, and streets crowded by towering buildings. Paintings by Michigan artists, including Helen Janaszak, Virginia Cuthbert, and Sepeshy highlight the landmarks of Detroit and Kalamazoo (Fig. 13).

Fig. 9. Sunday in the Park by Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858–1924), c. 1910–1913. Signed “Prendergast” at lower right. Oil on panel, 11 1⁄2 by 16 1⁄4 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, gift of the L. C. and Margaret Walker Fund.
Fig. 10. Driobe and her Handmaidens by Arthur Bowen Davies (1862–1928), c. 1902–1906. Initialed “ABD” at lower right. Oil on canvas mounted on board, 19 by 26 1⁄2 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, museum purchase, through the gifts of Knoll, Inc., Dr. Frederick D. Levin and Mr. I. Richard Levin, Vin and Alyce Erickson, Bernard and Helen DeVries, and the Mary J. Stevens Estate, by exchange.

The influx of new workers gave rise to crowded tenement buildings and apartments and drove a demand for entertainment. Reginald Marsh included real-life props from a Coney Island ride in his painting Tunnel of Love (Spooks), depicting a working-class woman with an underwhelming male date (Fig. 8). Further paintings by Marsh continue the theme of leisure and people-watching, with his characteristically statuesque women standing on the boardwalk, cavorting on the beach, or going about their routine day on the city streets. John Sloan was arguably the most immersed of the Eight in the Ashcan ideals, and his prints include views of penny arcades and shoe shiners as well as of his own haunts, including bars, taverns, and the Kraushaar Gallery. His etchings also take on a voyeuristic character, looking across dark rooftops into windows lit against the night, or directly into bedrooms as women prepare for bed or engage in other quiet, daily routines like reading the paper. Three etchings by Martin Lewis reveal the city at night, one showing a passing freight train, a second a streetway beneath the shadows of a heavy arch, and the third a young woman, dressed for the evening, striding boldly down a sidewalk lit by storefront windows. Kenneth Hayes Miller’s signature subject, well-dressed women shopping in small groups, appears in paintings and prints. The bustle of the city provided no end of visual enticements to artists.

Fig. 11. Woman with Watch by William James Glackens (1870–1938), c. 1914. Inscribed “W. GLACKENS Woman with Watch” on an old label on the back. Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, museum purchase, gift of the L. C. and Margaret Walker Fund.

Rapid change also resulted in social turmoil and unsafe and exploitive living, working, and environmental conditions. Such circumstances provided rich subject matter for realist artists. During the Progressive era (beginning in 1896 and running to around 1929), reformers and activists worked to reform government, business, and society. Their efforts included strengthening the central government, new regulations and regulatory bodies, workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition. For all of the progress made, classism, racism, and sexism continued to define much of the social structure of the country.

The economic devastation of the Great Depression in the 1930s fueled artists to create now iconic images of the time. These realist works continue to inform popular knowledge of history today. Breadline – No One Has Starved by Reginald Marsh and an untitled charcoal drawing by Hughie Lee-Smith give us artists’ views of the breadlines that defined the Depression for many—seemingly endless ranks of unemployed men, clad identically in hats and long coats. Mabel Dwight’s lithograph Children’s Clinic shows doctors and nurses tending to fussy infants and anxious mothers. Dwight, a social reformer, would have been aware of the health risks posed by the overcrowded and dirty conditions of poorer neighborhoods.

Many of the prominent artists of early twentieth-century America began their careers as illustrators, including Charles Alston, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Guy Pène Du Bois, Jerome Myers, and William Glackens. For many, the subjects of their illustrations appeared in their paintings, bringing daily life into the world of fine art. Journalism itself was undergoing major changes at the time, led by the efforts of the muckrakers—investigative writers who exposed the corruption of America’s institutions. Within this media environment, artists found work depicting the day-to-day and sensational news of the cities. Pène Du Bois, for example, was an illustrator, cartoonist, critic, and writer who often covered legal affairs. His painting Locked Jury, which depicts a female juror stoic against the dramatic gestures of her male colleagues, was doubtless drawn from the artist’s court experiences (Fig. 14).

Fig. 12. Steel Mill Homes (Blast Furnace) by Charles E. Burchfield (1893–1967), 1919. Signed and dated “C Burchfield–1919–” at lower right. Watercolor on paperboard, 18 7/8 by 32 1/8 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, museum purchase, gift of the L. C. and Margaret Walker Fund.
Fig. 13. Woodward Avenue No. II by Zoltan Sepeshy (1898–1974), 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 by 30 inches. Flint Institute of Arts, gift of Pat Glascock and Michael D. Hall in memory of Collin Gabriel Hall, Inlander Collection.

Women found expanding educational and employment opportunities, in the professions as well as in factories and as domestic workers, all leading to a growing sense of independence. A need for more labor, especially during times of war, brought more women into the workforce, and by 1948 they made up 28.6 percent of the workforce. Artists such as Minna Citron and Isabel Bishop created images of these working-class women, depicting them in their everyday affairs, dressed in the fashions of the day. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote in the US. Today it may be difficult to imagine that many of the great women artists of the era were not able to vote.

For Black Americans, new opportunities were offset by racism and institutional discrimination. The Great Migration brought a massive shift in the United States population, as over 6 million Black Americans moved from the South to cities in the Northeast and Midwest between 1910 and 1970. World War I accelerated migration, as northern factories recruited workers to make up for labor shortages. Competition for jobs with whites and recent immigrants led to sometimes violent conflict, segregation, and redlining, establishing isolated Black communities. New Black neighborhoods became centers of culture and identity, most notably during the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–1930s). Harlem became a major center for African American culture and politics, with writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, and poets contributing to a revolutionary movement aimed at Black identity, pride, equality, and free- dom. Leading figures included Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and visual artists Charles Alston, Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, Palmer Cole Hayden, Lois Mailou Jones, and James Van Der Zee. Many of the Harlem Renaissance artists would participate in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs, and the political and social advancements made during this time helped to lay the foundation for the Civil Rights movement. The photographs of Van Der Zee captured Black life in a manner that emphasized economic success, family, music, and fashion (Fig. 2). Paintings by Charles Alston, Palmer Cole Hayden, and Henry Bannarn reveal a rich diversity in the visual explorations of Black artists. Hayden worked in a realist, but naive, style to depict the urban landscape and Black American life. Though he was Black himself, many of his depictions of Black Americans seem to incorporate racist caricatures, leading to disputes among critics over whether he was enforcing those stereotypes or challenging them. New York City Hall avoids such controversy, showing a street filled with parked cars and passersby in front of the stately building (Fig. 7). Charles Alston’s Untitled (Couple) blends realism with elements inspired by African art and cubism in a painting that boasts richly saturated color, fractured forms and space, and dynamic line work (Fig. 5). Alston was a highly successful illustrator, painter, and teacher, and became the first Black instructor at the Art Students League in 1950. He shared a studio with Bannarn, whose sculptures and paintings focused on the daily lives and struggles of African Americans. Bannarn’s Ironing Day is painted in a loose, sketchy manner, showing a woman, dressed in a bold red dress, ironing clothing in a drab interior, a factory building just visible in the landscape outside her window (Fig. 6).

Fig. 14. Locked Jury by Guy Pène Du Bois (1884–1958), c. 1950. Inscribed “LOCKED JURY GUY PENE DU BOIS NEW YORK” on a label mounted to the stretcher. Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 by 39 1⁄2 inches. Muskegon Museum of Art, museum purchase, through funds from the MMA Acquisition Fund of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and the Hackley Picture Fund.

Widely varied in style and subject, the realism of the first half of the twentieth century reflects the impact the era had on Americans of all backgrounds. The stories of America’s people play out in the hands of the artists, as they explore, reveal, reinforce, and challenge the cultural, societal, and political structures of the time. The imagery created by these artists is forever linked to our shared history and continues to invite greater study and understanding of the forces that shaped it.

American Realism: Visions of America, 1900–1950 debuted at the Muskegon Museum of Art earlier this year, and is on view at the Flint Institute of Arts to December 30. The exhibition will then travel to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, where it will be on view from January 21 to April 14, 2024.

ART MARTIN is director of collections and exhibitions at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

* The unpublished letter is in the archives of the Muskegon Museum of Art.