Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 19, 2011 with permission of the author and the Indiana State Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204 at either this phone number or Web address:
Indiana Realities: Regionalist Painting 1930-1945 from the Robert L. and Ellen E. Haan Collection
by Rachel Berenson Perry
Between the World Wars, the United States assumed isolationist tendencies creating an appreciation for American culture. Artists began to view the "American Scene" from a new perspective, documenting the land, cities, and people as they saw them. This renewed interest in representational painting reversed a pre-existing movement toward individually subjective artwork, or Modernism. The general public could relate to the artists' realistic documentation of everyday people in their own communities, and the nostalgic images appealed to a resurgent patriotism. According to art historians, the fundamental ideals of place, history, politics, and social change replaced individual consciousness as sources of artistic motivation.
An exhibition organized by Maynard Walker in 1933 for the Kansas City Art Institute brought the phrase "Regionalist movement" to national awareness. The work of artists Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), John Steuart Curry (1897-1946), and Grant Wood (1891-1942), among other historic and contemporary figures, was shown for the first time together. Walker maintained that these artists, in addition to their shared sensibilities, were creating a new direction in American art by painting exclusively Midwestern subjects.
By 1935, Regionalism's unquestioned popularity had revived America's enthusiasm for its own history and culture. Supported by governmental funding, imagery of national strength and stability helped to comfort the pervasive feelings of despair resulting from economic and environmental ruin. Federal programs designed to provide work for needy artists alleviated some of the Depression's impact. The application and award process favored paintings done in the Regionalist style, further reinforcing the style's popularity and dominance.
Indiana artists, like those in the rest of the country, suffered the effects of the Depression. "Even the Hoosier Salon, heralded in the national press as the model for art boosterism, having enriched Indiana artists with $140,000 in prizes and sales in its first eight exhibitions, could promise only one half of the usual $5,000 in prize money for 1933 and project half the usual $5,000 in sales." [i]
Artist William Kaeser (1908-1987) worked his way through the John Herron Art Institute and graduated in 1932. After two years of graduate school at Indiana University, he could not find work as an art teacher. Along with artists Cecil Head (1906-1995) and Floyd Hopper (1909-1984), he rented studio space on Market Street in Indianapolis. "We were lucky in some ways," he remembered. "That's why we painted so much! ... The door to our studio was always open. We were painting early in the morning -- stacks of paintings everywhere -- a fellow came in and said he could sell them in offices. He got all he could carry; by 5:30 we figured he'd absconded with the money. The next morning we found all of them stacked against the studio door -- that's how bad times were or how bad we were![ii]
The style of the Regionalist work contrasted with the American impressionist style, practiced by T.C. Steele (1847-1926) and the Hoosier Group as well as the later Brown County artists, which had endured in Indiana since the turn of the 20th century. Regionalism favored well-defined shapes and narrative scenes featuring urban settings, industrialism, agricultural work, and the everyday lives and portraits of the common man. The structures and images of man replaced nostalgic unspoiled landscapes.
A significant catalyst for this local change in style can be attributed to the change in leadership at Indiana's most important art school, the John Herron Art Institute. With unemployment in 1933 as high as 37 percent in Indianapolis, Herron facilitated Federal programs to help needy artists throughout the state. Their associated museum was the center of the local division of the Public Works of Art Project, as well as the state program for artists organized under the government's Commission for Unemployed Relief.
With coffers in the red and a dwindling student population, Herron's Board of Directors hired Donald Magnus Mattison (1905-1975) as the Art School's first full-time director in the spring of 1933. A winner of the Prix de Rome in 1928, and graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, he proposed an aggressive agenda to reverse the school's fortunes. Modeling the new program on the rigorous system of European ateliers, he reorganized all classes and disciplines. His first act, to fire nine of Herron's 15 faculty members (including the venerable William Forsyth) incited the students to burn Mattison's image in effigy.
Replacement teachers included one of his first choices, Henrik Martin Mayer (1908-1972). "Mayer was the prototype of instructors that Mattison intended to bring to Herron: young men (and they would all be men) who had graduated from top art schools (with a bias toward Yale) and who had won prizes that had allowed them to study in Europe By their own example, Mattison and Mayer intended that Herron students set their sights beyond Indiana. From his first day at Herron, Mattison committed himself publicly to equip and encourage his new students to compete for the two great prizes -- the Prix de Rome and the Chaloner Paris Prize -- for which no Herron student had previously tried. [iii]
In less than a year-and-a-half, the results of Mattison's vision began to materialize. Hunt's Tornado, by Will Harvey Hunt (b. 1910), a figure composition reminiscent of Benton's style, was the surprise winner of the $500 Best of Show at the annual Hoosier Salon exhibition in January 1935. A few weeks later, Donald Mattison's dramatically lit Negro Baptism won Best of Show at the 28th Annual Indiana Artists Exhibition at Herron.
This [painting], like Hunt's picture, struck critics as 'a piece of Regionalism,' but Mattison's award was not surprising since the juror that year was Grant Wood. . . What did surprise many were the unkind words Wood leveled against Indiana landscape painting, typified by the Brown County painters. 'They are local color painters,' Wood argued. 'They do no analyzing, no sifting, put no accent upon the significant. They are not regionalists.[iv]
Awards continued for the Indiana students who painted in the Regionalist style. Students Will Harvey Hunt and Edwin Fulwider (1913-2003) each won the Herron Mary B. Milliken prize, which enabled them to study in Europe in 1936. A year later, student Robert Weaver (1913-1991) was the first Herron student to win a major national award, the Chaloner Prize. This was the largest single art prize in the United States, and included $6,000 for a three-year stipend to study in Paris, in addition to a New York studio. The art school received another distinction in May of 1938 when one of its fifth-year students, Harry A. Davis, was awarded the coveted Prix de Rome. His painting, Harvest Dinner, depicting a rural Indiana family gathering, won the national competition.
Despite the official neutrality of the United States in the European war, American emotions had become intense. Edmond Brucker (1912-1999) joined the Herron faculty to teach composition in the fall of 1938. At the end of the next summer, Brucker entered a portrait of an Asian youth titled Young Artist in Smock at the Indiana State Fair. Many fairgoers called the painting "The Jap." Art critic and columnist for The Indianapolis Star, Lucille Morehouse, did her best to dispel the misconception. Heading her column "Chinaman not a Jap," she wrote that, "The sitter -- Nuy Young -- is a first-year student at Herron. He is Chinese, not Japanese, and he is most troubled by the misidentification, since the Japanese were at that moment besieging Canton, his birthplace and his family home.[v] When he re-entered the portrait in the January annual Hoosier Salon, Brucker re-titled it Chinese Art Student, and it won Outstanding Portrait in Oil.
In addition to the Herron Art Institute's emphasis on national awards, which advanced the Regionalist style of painting during the 1930s, other groups in Indianapolis encouraged artist camaraderie and informal peer review, fostering high quality work.
The aforementioned Market Street artists, William Kaeser, Cecil Head, and Floyd Hopper, shared downtown studio space in the Farmer's Trust Building on Market Street, between Pennsylvania and Delaware Streets, where a high concentration of artist studios existed. "The buildings were old, well heated in winter, and the rent was low," explained Kaeser. "On sunny days we would hike over to White River and Washington Street to paint the colorful shacks of what was known as Hooverville. These unusual shacks built from all kinds of scraps of material, and each one different from the next, were occupied by the unfortunates, victims of the Depression.[vi]
Later in the 1930s, the three artists relocated on Market Street to a studio with better light on the fifth floor of the Union Trust Building. During this period, Hopper and Kaeser competed for post office mural commissions sponsored by the Section of Painting and Sculpture in the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Government.
Kaeser won a commission for the Pendleton, Indiana, post office and remembered, "Using nothing but the best materials, paints and canvas, as specified by the commission, the mural [The Loggers] was painted in our Market Street studio on a canvas that was 12 feet long and 6 feet high.[vii] Another Indiana regionalist painter, Grant Christian (1911-1989), won the commission for the Nappanee, Indiana, post office mural with his painting, Waiting for the Mail. Indiana Regionalist artists also received national recognition, with paintings representing the state in a major 1934 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and inclusion in the 1939 New York World's Fair.
With the coming of the war, many of the Indiana Regionalist artists, Herron students among them, found their lives changed. Nevertheless, they continued to pursue their art. Prix de Rome art students Harry Davis and Robert Pippenger (b. 1912), studying in Rome, had traveled to Naples to find passage out of Italy to New York in June of 1940. They became eyewitnesses to the British air raid against Naples, following the Italian bombing of the British-held island of Malta. While awaiting passage, the two continued their studies by making sketches as they explored the city. This activity drew the attention of the Italian police who twice detained them on suspicion of spying and mapmaking. They were released in time to catch the last American ship out of the Mediterranean on June 28. Crowded with refugees, the ship, Excalibur, carried three times its normal capacity.
Harry Davis returned to Italy as a private in the army in 1942 to become staff artist of the 85th Division of the 5th Army. On his own time, however, he was inspired to paint a sketch of peasant women he observed working in a field. He sent Tillers of the Grain home to his father, who loaned it to the Herron Art Museum before it won an award in the annual Indiana Artists' Club exhibition.
Because so many of the awards in the annual Hoosier Salon exhibitions were going to Herron students and teachers, the Salon changed its eligibility rules in 1948. "Neither students nor professors taking regular classes were welcome. This rule precluded the appearance of Herron students who, before the war, had been so prominent in the Salon's prize listings, and almost guaranteed that the new trends in art, so motivational to the students, would not disturb the exhibition. ...Those who had begun exhibiting at the Salon in the 1930s -- Mattison, Brucker, Weaver, Davis, and Hopper -- remained loyal and honored the exhibitions for decades, but the adventurous of their students were estranged from the Salon.[viii]
The accolades that the Indiana Regionalist artists earned during the 1930s were overshadowed by the life-changing interruption of World War II. After the war, Modernist art again gained favor and most of the artists changed their painting styles or moved on to other professions. Unlike the Hoosier Impressionists, who continued to paint in their chosen genre until their deaths, many Indiana Regionalists, who were young when the movement flourished, found other ways to support themselves. Consequently, their names as important professional artists faded, along with the art movement. Appreciation for the style and sensibility of Regionalist painting, perhaps generated by America's recent recession, is growing today. A reassessment of these neglected artists is long overdue.
The Robert L. and Ellen E. Haan collection includes the finest Indiana Regionalist paintings in the nation. Not satisfied with merely collecting work by the best Hoosier artists of the time period, the Haan's researched, identified, and sought out specific award-winning paintings. The opportunity to view such paintings as Harry Davis' Harvest Dinner and Robert Weaver's Next Up is unprecedented, and will undoubtedly add to the revival of interest in Regionalism.
i The Herron Chronicle by Harriet G. Warkel, Martin F. Krause and S.L. Berry. Herron School of Art, Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis 2003 (distributed by Indiana University Press, Bloomington), p 79.
ii From videotaped interview, "William Kaeser and Floyd Hopper: Indiana Art in the 30s and 40s," Indianapolis Art League,1982, private collection of Frank, Jr. and Patte Owings.
iii The Herron Chronicle, p. 87
iv Ibid, p. 89
v Lucille Morehouse, "Chinaman, not a Jap," The Indianapolis Star, September 10, 1939.
vi From William Kaeser's collection of short stories titled "The Four Seasons of Life" by Frank Owings, Jr., and Patte Owings, private collection of Frank, Jr. and Patte Owings.
viii The Herron Chronicle, p. 119
About the author
Rachel Berenson Perry is the fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. She has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwest History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. She provided the introductory essay for Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture and "An American Art Colony" in The Artists of Brown County, published by Indiana University Press. Her books include Children of the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz, published by Artist Colony Inn and Press, and T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896 - 1914, released by Indiana University Press in 2009.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 19, 2011, with permission of the author and the Indiana State Museum, which was granted to TFAO on March 15, 2011. Ms. Perry's essay pertains to an exhibition, Indiana Realities: Regionalist Painting 1930 to 1945, which is on view at the Indiana State Museum March 6 - September 11, 2011.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Rachel Berenson Perry and Kathi Moore of the Indiana State Museum for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.
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