Explore the diverse American landscape through the experiences of five artists.
Idea One: The West
Between 1820 and 1850, nearly four million people moved into the western territories of the United States. Settling this new frontier inspired many Americans with national pride and patriotism. They felt this was America’s divine destiny. And to people tired of living in overcrowded East Coast cities, the West offered resources that seemed unlimited ore to be mined, forests to be felled, and prairies to be farmed.
The federal government and enterprising businessmen sent survey teams and exploratory expeditions westward. Writers, photographers, and artists often went along to document these journeys. They created art that encouraged easterners to travel to the West or invest in its resources.
The painter Albert Bierstadt made his first trip west in 1858, joining a survey team heading to Colorado and Wyoming. He returned in 1863 and spent two months in Yosemite Valley, California. On all of his journeys, Bierstadt made field sketches, color studies, and photographs. Back home in his New York studio, he used those pictures’ taking a sky from here and a mountain from there to produce his final paintings.
In The Merced River in Yosemite, Bierstadt captured the majestic beauty of dusk (or maybe dawn) on the banks of the Merced River. Sunlight streaming through the trees washes the canyon with tints of gold and pink. The entire scene glows with sunlight reflected off wisps of low-lying clouds and the mist rising from the water. Although Bierstadt included several figures, they are not very important. The sky and mountains, rivers and trees, rocks and wildflowers are the real subjects of this painting.
Idea Two: The Rugged Coastline
Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, was a popular spot with artists in the 1800s and is still a haven for artists today. This tiny island only a little over a mile long has a spectacular coast, with rugged cliffs and crashing surf.
In 1911, at the invitation of his good friend and fellow artist Robert Henri, the painter George Bellows spent three weeks on Monhegan Island. Bellows fell in love with the place, describing it as the most wonderful country ever modeled by the hand of the master architect. He returned with his family in 1913, and during the summer and fall he worked furiously, painting over one hundred pictures, including The Harbor, Monhegan Coast, Maine.
At the time Bellows stayed on Monhegan Island, the only people living there year-round were a few lobster fishermen and their families. In several of his seascapes, Bellows depicted their life and work. He knew about life by the sea. As a child, he had often visited his grandfather, who was a whaler in Montauk, off the coast of Long Island, New York.
This painting presents a world of greens and blues, of rocky cliffs, brilliant skies, and boats floating on the harbor’s gentle waves. A fisherman wearing bright yellow gear trudges toward the water, carrying his lobster traps. Even from afar, you get the feeling his work is not easy.
Bellows was influenced by Winslow Homer, an American artist known for his seascapes.
Idea Three: Skyscrapers and City Scenes
In 1925, Georgia O’Keeffe moved into the Shelton Hotel in downtown New York. In this brand new skyscraper, O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had an apartment on the thirtieth floor. That high vantage point inspired O’Keeffe to paint the quickly changing cityscape of New York.
O’Keeffe’s cityscapes focused on skyscrapers. During 1925, forty-five skyscrapers were built in New York, the most in one year. The skyscraper was very much an American symbol of modern technology. Many painters and photographers found themselves drawn to this new subject. From 1925 to 1929, O’Keeffe created thirty skyscraper pictures.
One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt. O’Keeffe wanted people to sense the overwhelming size of the skyscrapers being built up around her. So she painted the buildings from unusual angles and perspectives. Her husband, who photographed the skyscrapers, may have influenced how O’Keeffe painted her cityscapes. When you look at them, you feel like you are viewing them from the ground, peering up through a camera lens.
City Night could even be called ominous. Two forbidding black skyscrapers look ready to topple onto each other or maybe onto us. A mysterious light (the moon? a streetlight?) shines into the slice of blue night sky between the buildings. Another skyscraper, bright white, appears in the distance. Its shape resembles that of the Shelton Hotel, O’Keeffe’s home.
Idea Four: Small-Town America
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of people could not find work. They fell into poverty and led hard lives filled with despair. Many American artists and writers felt an obligation to make the public understand the plight of the unemployed. Their efforts resulted in a new art form social documentary. Photography turned out to be one of the best ways of reporting the brutal realities of life in the 1930s.
The federal government recognized that photography could help bring about social change. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a program to aid thousands of farmers and sharecroppers who had lost their land and livelihood because of drought and financial hardship. This new government agency (later called the Farm Security Administration) hired photographers to document the living conditions of these rural workers. As the project grew, photographers were sent all over the country to record what was going on in the United States during the Depression.
Walker Evans was one of the first photographers in the program. He traveled to West Virginia and Pennsylvania and later to Mississippi and Alabama, documenting the land, crops, schools, stores, roadside stands, and churches. He also photographed the people and their houses and belongings. Evans made it his mission to record a subject exactly as he found it; he didn’t arrange his pictures to heighten their effect. And no matter how dismal or squalid the surroundings, his subjects are portrayed with dignity.
During the summer of 1936, Evans went to Greensboro, Alabama, with the writer James Agee. For several weeks the two of them stayed with three families of sharecroppers, recording their lives in words and pictures. Evans’s photographs became the illustrations for Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an eye-opening portrayal of the hardships these families endured.
A photograph of James Agee taken by Walker Evans
The bedroom of a sharecropper in Alabama where Evans and Agee stayed
Idea Five: The View from the Road
Have you ever traveled along Route 66? Maybe not. Today, you can take big interstate highways when you want to drive across the country. But many years ago, Route 66, stretching 2,400 miles, was the main road from Chicago to Los Angeles. People called it the Main Street of America or the Mother Road.
Ed Ruscha traveled on Route 66 a lot. In 1956, when he was eighteen years old, he moved from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, taking that route. He drove with his friend Mason Williams in a 1950 black Ford sedan, and the two stopped often at gas stations to service the car. Over the years, Ruscha, who remained in Los Angeles, went back and forth many times along this famous highway.
His trips on Route 66 made a deep impression on Ruscha. The signs, billboards, and gas stations spotting the desolate highway inspired him to create a series of artworks. In 1963, he published a book entitled Twentysix Gasoline Stations, documenting his travel on Route 66 through black-and-white photographs of roadside gas stations. Ruscha made several paintings and prints from those photographs, including Double Standard.
Route 66 began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles. A photograph from Ruscha’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations
Send a Postcard
Pick one of these scenes and imagine yourself there. Write a postcard to a friend describing your experience. What are your surroundings like? How do you feel being there? What kind of things might you be doing? Share the postcards and have classmates guess which scene is being described.
Ed Ruscha paid special attention to the buildings and signs he encountered when he traveled Route 66. If you go on a road trip, keep a travel log of the things you see along the way. Then create an artwork inspired by what you saw. You could also take notes and make art about what you see if you ride a bus or train.
To produce his final paintings, Albert Bierstadt combined elements from several different pictures. Take photographs or make sketches of various scenes in your community. Then combine elements from different scenes a building from one, a tree from another to create a collage or a painting.
View FSA Photographs
View thousands of Farm Security Administration photographs taken by Walker Evans and many other photographers during the Great Depression on the Library of Congress website .