A new exhibition takes a look at how American artists found inspiration in rural landscapes during an era of modernist art that was more closely associated with cities.
“Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950” opens Sunday at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It features about 200 works from more than 80 artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Jacob Lawrence and Andrew Wyeth. It is divided into five geographical regions – the South, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast and the West – based on the part of the country featured in the works.
“The thing that they all share is that these are all works that reflect an artist thinking about or being moved by a specific location,” High curator of American art Stephanie Heydt said.
While American artists still traveled to Europe for instruction and inspiration in the first half of the 20th century, many also began to focus on things that were new to them closer to home, Heydt said. They looked outside major cities and found pastoral settings with barns and rolling hills, industrialism creeping into previously pristine spaces, dramatic vistas and scenes of regular people living their everyday lives.
“We often think of modernity being sparked by modern urban spaces,” Heydt said. “But the story should also include the rural spaces, the places that artists retreated to.”
She cited four main reasons for the artists’ travel: relaxation and escape from the bustle of the urban environment; a sense of community found in artist colonies and art schools; government or foundation grants or commissions from commercial customers; curiosity about unfamiliar places and a desire to experience the unknown.
Thomas Hart Benton, usually associated with the Midwest, traveled to the South and captures a weathered old tobacco farmer teaching a slight young girl about tobacco leaves in “Tobacco Sorters,” a commission for a tobacco company that was ultimately rejected. Another of his pieces, “The Cliffs,” shows sculpted-looking cliffs rising over crashing waves on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
“Opening Day at Talladega College,” painted by Hale Woodruff in 1942, is one of a series of six murals for the historically black college’s library that traces the slave’s journey to freedom. The bright colors lend vibrancy to the scenes of former slaves registering for classes. The other five murals are on display in another part of the High to complement this exhibition.
In “Black Hunter,” Andrew Wyeth paints an old friend of his in a rural field. The painting, drawn from the artist’s personal memories, has a haunting quality, Heydt noted. It hangs near works by his father N.C. Wyeth and sister Carolyn Wyeth.
O’Keeffe’s “Red Canna” captures the canna lilies that caught the artist’s eye when she visited the family home in Lake George, New York, of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, whose photographs are on display nearby. The painting, from 1919, gives a preview of her bright floral paintings with blended colors that have become so popular.
Maynard Dixon’s “Red Butte with Mountain Men,” a stunning large-scale painting from 1935, shows men on horseback in the shadow of spectacular rock formations. The warm colors radiate from the canvas like sunlight reflecting from the mesas.
A large-scale print of Ansel Adams’ iconic “Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, Winter, Yosemite National Park” captures the majesty of the Western landscape in a way that is so familiar but still breathtaking.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the High and the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and expands on a recent Brandywine show called “Rural Modern: American Art Beyond the City.”