The University of Wisconsin Press

Art History / American Studies


Renegade Regionalists
The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry
James M. Dennis

"Dennis boldly reshapes the work of the three painters universally recognized as the Midwestern 'regionalists,' redefining their place in American art history."—David Sokol, University of Illinois at Chicago

Famous for iconic images of the rural Midwest—such as American Gothic, Politics in Missouri, and Baptism in Kansas—Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry have long been lumped together under the rubric "the Regionalists." James M. Dennis offers a fresh and sophisticated look at the modernist tendencies of this trio of American painters, arguing that the individual styles of Wood, Benton, and Curry were both mislabeled and misunderstood. Revisiting the artistic and political culture of America between the World Wars, he shows that critics and ideologues—from Time Magazine to the Partisan Review—pigeonholed, praised, or pilloried the Regionalists to serve their own critical intentions.

Amply illustrating his argument with a thematic assortment of paintings and prints, Dennis explores the social and cultural reasons why critics, from 1930 on, consistently demanded that Wood, Benton, and Curry stop straying in their art toward modernist abstraction, caricature, or fantasy, but stick instead to rural subjects and realist styles. Conservative critics wanted inspiring, all-American imagery, not borrowings from Cubism. Radical critics called for social realism depicting the plight of the workers, even claiming that the Regionalists' stylized farmers smacked of fascism.

Dennis demonstrates that despite these attempts at rigid categorization, Wood, Benton, and Curry were self-defining artists who freely disregarded promotional dictates of Regionalism. In particular, Dennis discusses the artists' diverse portrayals of women, from rural "sunbonnet" women to cosmopolitan and even erotic figures and, in some of Curry's work, women exemplifying themes of social criticism and political protest. In conclusion, Dennis discards the concept of Wood, Benton, and Curry as a homogenous unit, placing them within the school of American modernism more often represented by Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O'Keefe. He also shows that Sheeler, Demuth, and Hartley were themselves more consistent in painting native locales and regional themes than were the "Regionalist Triumvirate."

James Dennis is professor of art history at the University of WisconsinMadison. He is the author of Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, as well as of catalogs for the traveling exhibition Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed and for the Grant Wood collection of the Cedar Rapids Art Center.

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cover of Renegade Regionalists is brown, with a painting by a regionalist painter, of a praire storm and a farm family seeking shelter.

April 1998

296 pp.    6 x 9
150 b/w illus.

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