Editor's note: The Flint Institute of Arts provided source material to Resource Library for the following article. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material please contact the Flint Institute of Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Artists of the Great Lakes: 1910-1960

May 26 - August 19, 2007


Image courtesy of Flint Institute of Arts


The Flint Institute of Arts has long held an outstanding collection of works of art by artists of the Midwest, especially from the first half of the twentieth century. In the past decade, the collection has expanded in breadth and depth to include hundreds of examples, often direct and energetic in approach, from the most significant artists of the region. This exhibition features 100 paintings, prints, and drawings, primarily created between 1910 and 1960, which present the subjects, styles, and individual statements of the artists of the Midwest.


Wall text from the exhibition

Daily Life
Great Lakes painters expressed a particular kinship with the everyday lives and activities of people of the Upper Midwest. Populist sentiment suffuses their art, with scenes of people at work, at leisure, and going about the routines of daily life.
Ethel Gath's The Sewing Machine or Sunday Morning and Basil Hawkins' The Card Players present two intimate interior scenes of daily life in Flint, Michigan. Lawrence McConaha's Springwood depicts bathers enjoying a respite from the summer's heat in Richmond, Indiana. Joseph Sparks' Net Mending Row shows a worker amongst the wooden net winders and storage sheds along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. James Flora's Mount Adams Winter Scene presents an expansive view of a winter day in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the foreground, a gathering of adults and children are seen whiling away the hours skating and sledding.
Industry was the lifeblood of the Great Lakes region during the twentieth century, providing thousands of workers with steady employment. Artists produced compelling scenes of mining, shipping, building, and manufacturing, documenting the region's economic legacy, and industries impact, both positive and negative, on the daily lives of its people. (right: Fred Biesel, American, 1893 - 1962, Evening - South Chicago, Oil on canvas, 1925, 26 x 30 inches. Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, L2003.43)
Great Lakes artists recorded the production cycle in its entirety, from the excavation and transportation of raw materials from around the Great Lakes to its processing and production in the region's urban centers. Clarence Carter's Coal Docks at Superior and Cameron Booth's Iron Ore depict coal and iron ore storage. Aaron Gorson's Barges Passing Under a Bridge shows material transit across the region's network of waterways. Lawrence McConaha's powerful image, Coke Otto, and Zoltan Sepeshy's Steel Mill-Zug Island, depict the massive facilities required for steel production. Alexander Levy's Stamping Room-Pierce Arrow Factory, and Jack Keijo Steele's Assembly Line signify the end of the cycle, as steel is stamped and welded in the region's automotive assembly plants.
Chicago and Cleveland emerged as prominent centers of Great Lakes artistic production during the first half of the twentieth century. Cleveland held strong artistic ties to northern Europe, whereas Chicago represented a more ethnically diverse population. Both cities' cultural institutions actively patronized and exhibited regional art. Other cities across the region such as Minneapolis/St.Paul, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh were also well represented by their artistic communities.
Great Lakes artists were attuned to the region's bustling city centers, producing images of the cities' skylines, boulevards, and neighborhoods. Although versed in the visual language of European modernism, their work remained unmistakably personal in style and subject matter. Clare Deike adapts cubist technique in her suburban setting, Westside Cleveland. Zoltan Sepeshy's Woodward Avenue No. II reflects the Detroit area's dynamic automobile culture. Ethel Johnt's Saint Mary's of Sorrows at Dawn and Edmund Brucker's The Capitol-Indianapolis present vistas that convey their sensitivity to the distinct character of these locales.
The Countryside
The Great Lakes' countryside is well represented, with many scenes devoted to the fields, woods, hills, and rural communities throughout the region. Although Great Lakes artists were inspired by the styles and techniques of the European landscape tradition, they reflect a specifically American character in their desire to depict the familiar settings of everyday rural life.
Scenes such as the gnarled trees in Henry Keller's Deep Woods, Lawrence McConaha's serene Indiana Pastoral, or August Biehle's brilliantly colored Hollyhocks typify the artists' personal experience of the land. Charles Burchfield's eerie Northwoods in Spring recasts a cluster of conifers into a vibrantly expressive, mysterious vision. Carlos Lopez's Country School, and Leo Henkora's Fall at the Edge of Town capture the charm and simplicity of rural architecture.
Great Lakes artists were particularly keen observers of local identity. In accord with the populist sentiments expressed in American scene painting nationally, Great Lakes artists responded with memorable portraits of people from the region's diverse urban and rural populations.
Santos Zingale's introspective portrait, Unemployed Worker, reflects a sense of the collective hardship and travail endured by the nation's workers during the Great Depression. Francis McVey's The School Teacher captures the calm demeanor of a fair-haired teacher seated at her desk. Roman Johnson's Dad depicts his father within a composite landscape; an old home and expansive stretch of Ohio pastureland provides the regional backdrop for his father's portrait. Similarly constructed composite images include Edmund Brucker's Bag Ears and Bill. Bag Ears is a portrait of an immigrant worker's son posed in front of an alleyway in Cleveland's "Little Italy" district. Brucker's portrait of his brother, Bill, has the sitter placed in front of a window that looks out onto the rolling farmland in eastern Ohio.
The Water
The Great Lakes are the timeless presence that underscores the cultural and economic vitality of the populations that developed along the shorelines and waterways of the region. Lakes and waterways were a continual source of inspiration, providing a wealth of opportunities for artists to express the waters' ever changing qualities in a variety of artistic modes and individual styles. (right: Constance Coleman Richardson, American, 1905 - 2002, Ore Docks, Duluth, Oil on masonite, 1953, 16 x 31 inches. Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, L2003.97)
Artists responded to the wide range of marine subject matter, painting scenes of the Great Lakes, inland lakes, rivers, shorelines, beaches, and marshes. Moreover, their work spans a wide stylistic spectrum, from realistic representations such as Constance Coleman Richardson's Ore Docks, Duluth, and Aaron Bohrod's Houseboats - Chicago River, to the distinctly modern interpretation of Jean Crawford Adams' Lake Geneva.


(above: Jean Crawford Adams, American, 1884 - 1972, Lake Geneva, Oil on board, 1929, 16 x 20 inches . Gift of Pat Glascock and Michael D. Hall in memory of Harry Butler, 2003.19)


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these additional articles and essays:

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Flint Institute of Arts in Resource Library.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.