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Module 11 The Great Depression & World War II

(Lange, Hopper, Lawrence)

Sculpture & Photography


During the 1930s and 40s, photography and sculpture expanded into new realms of artistic expression that were influenced by the times.

The period from 1930-1945 in American history is marked by the Great Depression and outbreak of the second World War. During this time, both photography and sculpture expanded into new realms of artistic expression, heavily influenced by the society and times.


Photographic technology continued to expand throughout the 20th century. Kodachrome, the first modern “integral tripack” (or “monopack”) color film, was introduced by Kodak in 1935, and Agfa’s similarly structured Agfacolor Neu was introduced in 1936. These new technologies allowed for the proliferation of color photography for the first time, and currently available color films still employ a multilayer emulsion and the same principles, most closely resembling Agfa’s product.

Social Realism

Social realism, also known as socio-realism, became an important art movement during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Social realism depicted social and racial injustice, and economic hardship through unvarnished pictures of life’s struggles, often depicting working-class activities as heroic. The movement was largely a style of painting that typically conveyed a message of social or political protest edged with satire; however it also extended to the art of photography. Prominent photographers at the time included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange , Margaret Bourke-White, Lewis Hine, Edward Steichen, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Doris Ulmann, Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, and Russell Lee,among several others. Each of these artists sought to depict the world–and often the poverty–they saw around them with the realistic portrayal that only photography could provide. In the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936. A portrait of Florence Owens Thompson (1903-1983).

The caption of the original image reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. ” Lange’s image of a supposed migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity.

Group F/64

Alongside social realism, another approach to photography referred to as “straight photography” was also gaining momentum. Group f/64 is perhaps the most well known example of this art movement. Group f/64 was a group of seven 20th century San Francisco photographers who shared a common photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images seen through a particularly Western viewpoint. In part, they formed in opposition to the pictorialism movement in photography that had dominated much of the early 20th century, but moreover they wanted to promote a new modernist aesthetic that was based on precisely exposed images of natural forms and found objects. Photographers involved in the group included Ansel Adams , Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke, and Edward Weston.

Ansel Adams "Half Dome, Apple Orchard".
Ansel Adams: Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite trees with snow on branches, April 1933.

Ansel Adams was one of the co-founders of Group f/64, a group of photographers known who shared a common style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images.


As the century began, many young European sculptors migrated to the free, booming economy across the Atlantic. Thus, European trained sculptors such as Elie Nadelman, Albin Polasek, Gaston Lachaise and Carl Milles account for much of the great work created before 1950.

Modern Classicisim and American Expressionism

Several notable American sculptors joined in the revitalization of the classical tradition at this time, most notably Paul Manship, who “discovered” archaic Greek sculpture while studying on a scholarship in Rome. C. Paul Jennewein and Edward McCartan were also leaders in this direction who fit easily with the art-deco tastes of the 1920s. In the 1930s and 1940s, the ideologies seen throughout European politics were also reflected in the associations of American sculptors: on the right were artists who were mostly native-born and old-school classical, modeling from clay; the left was often immigrant and expressionistic, with an emphasis on more current themes and direct carving in wood or stone. An example of a left-leaning leader would be Anna Hyatt Huntington, heiress and sculptor who founded and led the National Sculpture Society,and who endowed the sculpture park, Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. Representing the right of the political divide was the New York-based Sculptors Guild, whose most famous member was William Zorach.

African-American Sculptors

With the Harlem renaissance, an African-American sculpture genre emerged. Richmond Barthé was an outstanding example, establishing a widely successful reputation for his many public works . Augusta Savagewas a sculptor and teacher. Other contemporary sculptors include Elizabeth Catlett, Martin Puryear, Jerry Harris, Thaddeus Mosley, and Richard Hunt.

richmond barthe the boxer
Richmond Barthe (1901 -1989)”Boxer”, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago

Richmond Barthe is an outstanding example of American sculpture in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and was influential in the Harlem Renaissance.

Jacob Lawrence “The Migration Series”

[Smarthistory > Expressionism to Pop Art > Art between the wars; the avant-garde & the rise of totalitarianism > American art to World War II > Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series (short version)]

60 panels, tempera on hardboard (even numbers at The Museum of Modern Art, odd numbers at the Phillips Collection)

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Hopper “Nighthawks”

By Christine Zappella[2]

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm / 33-1/8 x 60 inches (Art Institute of Chicago).
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm / 33-1/8 x 60 inches (Art Institute of Chicago).

Near Misses

In place of meaningful interactions, the four characters inside the diner of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks are involved in a series of near misses. The man and woman might be touching hands, but they aren’t. The waiter and smoking-man might be conversing, but they’re not. The couple might strike up a conversation with the man facing them, but somehow, we know they won’t. And then we realize that Hopper has placed us, the viewer, on the city street, with no door to enter the diner, and yet in a position to evaluate each of the people inside. We see the row of empty counter stools nearest us. We notice that no one is making eye contact with any one else. Up close, the waiter’s face appears to have an expression of horror or pain. And then there is a chilling revelation: each of us is completely alone in the world.

The slickness of the paint, which makes the canvas read almost like an advertisement, and immediate accessibility of the subject matter draws the viewer into Hopper’s painting. But he does not tell us a story. Rather than a narrative about men and women out for a festive night on the town, we are invited to ask questions about the characters’ ambiguous lives. Are the man and woman a couple? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Who is the man with his back to us? How did he end up in the diner? What is the waiter’s life like? What is causing his distress?

The light

By setting the scene on one of New York City’s oblique corners and surrounding the diner with glass, Hopper was able to exploit stark pictorial devices. First, the fluorescent light flooding the diner is the only light that illuminates the painting; in the absence of a streetlamp, it spills into the night through both windows onto both sides of the street corner. It throws a series of cast shadows onto the sidewalk and apartment buildings, but ultimately draws our attention back to the men and woman inside the diner. The angle also allows him to show the people in a mix of frontal and profile views, heightening the sense that no figure is really communicating with another.

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930, oil on canvas, 35 3/16 x 60 1/4" (Whitney Museum of American Art)
Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930, oil on canvas, 35 3/16 x 60 1/4″ (Whitney Museum of American Art)

This feeling can be understood by comparing Nighthawks to Hopper’s earlier painting Early Sunday Morning. Both paintings are set in front of the red brick apartments of New York’s Greenwich Village and show us an hour of the day when people are typically not awake. Like Nighthawks, which was created at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, Early Sunday Morning was also painted at a historically important moment, the beginning of the Great Depression. But despite their similarities, Early Sunday Morning produces a sense of ease in the viewer, not anxiety.

Detail: Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

Partially, this is because of the flooding light of dawn. But Early Sunday Morning, with its frilly awnings, brightly colored barber’s pole, squat fire hydrant, and windows opening to meet the morning sun, presents a world that is about to bustle with life. Nighthawks shows the opposite. The windows of the shops and apartments are empty and dark. The only remnants of human activity outside the diner are a cash register in a shop window and a cigar advertisement above the glass pane. There is no clock in the restaurant, but the empty coffee tureens on the back counter betray the indecent hour of night. This is a world shut down. Because our characters are awake, they are alienated—not only from each other, but also from civilization itself.

A timeless feel

Nighthawks is one of Hopper’s New York City paintings, and the artist said that it was based on a real café. Many people have tried to find the exact setting of the painting, but have failed. In his wife’s diaries, she wrote that she and Hopper himself both served as models for the people in the painting. Despite these real-life details, the empty composition and flat, abstracting planes of color give the canvas a timeless feel, making it an object onto which one can project one’s own reality. Perhaps this is why it has lent itself to so well to many parodies, even appearing as a motif on an episode of The Simpsons.

When it was completed the canvas was bought almost immediately by the Art Institute of Chicago where it remains, and has been wildly popular ever since. The painting’s modern-day appeal can also be understood because of its ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for an America of a time gone-by. Despite its inherent universality, the dress of the four people—the woman evoking a pin-up doll, the men in their well-tailored suits and hats, the worker in his soda jerk costume—as well as the “Phillies” advertisement, firmly plant the painting in a simpler past, making it a piece of Americana.

A subtle critique

But perhaps Nighthawks’ enduring popularity can be explained because of its subtle critique of the modern world, the world in which we all live. Despite its surface beauty, this world is one measured in cups of coffee, imbued with an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and a deep desire, but ultimate inability, to connect with those around us.


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Art 205 "Western Art from 18th to Mid 20th Century" by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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