Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s

November 5, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, there’s currently an exhibition called La peinture américaine des années 1930. (American painting in the 1930s) It displays the trends in painting in America during the Great Depression according to several themes: rural landscapes and way of life, cities and their work environment, social issues and entertainment. It is an exhibition organized with the collaboration of the Chicago Art Institute. It was already presented in Chicago and it will next go to the Royal Academy in London. It is very educational about the times, explaining the economic situation and the different art programs implemented by the federal goverment. While I was watching paintings, some reminded me of books and I couldn’t help thinking that some of them would make fantastic book covers. I’ll start with the iconic American Gothic by Grant Wood that has been borrowed by advertising and other artists. I’ve heard it called the American Joconde.

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

It’s probably one of the most famous American paintings of the time, along with the ones by Edward Hopper. It made me think of Willa Cather because these farmers seem to come right out of the 19th century and to represent the hard working pioneers.

Totally different setting: a harbour, maybe in Saint Louis. This one reminded me of American Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925) because there were parts in the harbour in New York.

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Exploring the social impact of the crisis, some artists protested against the ravages of capitalism and showed the life of the working class. This portrait of Pat Whalen, a Communist activist brought memories of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Alice Neel was a Communist herself and she portrayed several activists.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Back in New York, I immediately thought about The Outing, a short story included in Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) or A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes, even if both were published after the 1930s.

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

It’s hard to talk about literature during the Great Depression without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) In the section about rural life, there was this striking painting to express the destruction of land due to severe droughts.

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

In the room about the entertainments of the time, Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon (1934) would really make a great cover for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935), a book where a couple enters a dance marathon.

Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood 1934

Philip Evergood pictures the extreme fatigue of the couples who shuffle on the dance floor, the circus around this inhumane entertainment and the acute need of money of the participants if they were willing to enter that kind of contest.

There were about 50 paintings but I only picked up the ones that reminded me of a book. For readers who have the opportunity to go to Paris, I recommend going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, for this exhibition but also for the permanent collection of the museum. It will also be possible to see this exhibition in London at the Royal Academy, it’s entitled America after the fall: Paintings in the 1930s and it will last from February to June 2017.

Last but not least, I bought a book at the museum’s library: La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel and it is an excerpt of the diplomatic correspondence between Paul Claudel and his Minister Aristide Briand when Claudel was ambassador of France in Washington (1927-1933) I’ll write another billet about it as it is a fascinating read after the 2008 crisis and the current presidential election in the USA.

  1. November 5, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    What a unique and interesting post! I loved the inclusion of your favorite pieces!


    • November 5, 2016 at 9:36 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I always wonder if it’s worth posting about things personal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. November 5, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Great post.

    This is such an interesting topic. Throughout history the arts have run in parallel ways. This is such an good example of this.

    Mother Earth Laid Bare looks so ahead of its time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 5, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      It’s a very interesting topic. I didn’t know there were “federal agencies” (I don’t know how to name them) that subsidised artists at the time. They were asked to do murals and report on the people’s life through their art.

      This painting by Alexander Hogue was stunning. I didn’t know most of the artists presented there, except for Hopper, O’Keefe and Wood. It was very interesting and an opportunity to discover new painters.


  3. N@ncy
    November 5, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I am SO jealous of you….this is just something I would love to see. (how long did you have to stand in line to get into the expositon? ) I was contemplating a long weekend in Paris(or is close by with Euro tunnel)…this review may just push me over the edge. Love Erosion…and loved Grapes of Wrath!.


    • November 5, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      I didn’t have to stay in line more than 5 minutes. The thing to do when you go to exhibits in Paris is to buy advanced tickets on There’s a quick line for visitors holding tickets. It works almost everywhere.
      There’s a good exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay (Splendeurs du Second Empire) A good illustration of La Curée by Zola.
      There’s another great one at the Musée Pompidou about Magritte. Very educational.

      I haven’t been there but the exhibition The Color Line at the Quai Branly museum sounds great as well.
      There’s another one about Mexico at the Grand Palais, along with one about Hergé and one about Oscar Wilde at the Petit Palais.

      I guess you have enough to see for a week end 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • N@ncy
        November 5, 2016 at 10:02 pm

        Thanks so much for all this information!


        • November 5, 2016 at 10:04 pm

          You’re welcome. Call me the new “Paris Tourist Bureau” 🙂
          There are so many great exhibitions at the moment.

          Liked by 1 person

      • November 6, 2016 at 2:08 am

        Oh, oh, oh… oh how I would love to see that Second Empire exhibition after reading all my Zolas!


        • November 6, 2016 at 11:06 am

          It would illustrate La curée, La débâcle or Au bonheur des dames but not much Germinal or L’Assommoir.


          • November 6, 2016 at 12:36 pm

            Still, *sigh* it sounds wonderful.


            • November 7, 2016 at 8:17 am

              It was an interesting exhibition, for sure


  4. November 5, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Great connection between literature and paintings – I totally agree. And that book you got sounds fascinating as well – maybe I should get it for my father (as a former diplomat he loves that kind of thing).


    • November 5, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      I’m sure your father would like the Claudel, as long as he’s interested in economy. It’s mostly about the economic situation with a bit of politics. I wish there were more texts about social issues.
      But it’s fascinating (and disheartening) to see how we can still relate to what he writes.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. November 5, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Fascinating post Emma. Thanks!


    • November 5, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      Thanks. I’m happy you found it interesting.


  6. November 5, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    Intriguing post! Your connections are great. I especially liked mention of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which phrase, never mind the book, very few people today seem to know.


    • November 5, 2016 at 10:01 pm

      I enjoyed the book They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This concept of dance marathon is terrible but not far from some of today’s TV shows.


  7. November 6, 2016 at 10:03 am

    What an interesting post, Emma. I love the connections you’ve made between individual paintings and books – I agree, the Grant Wood is very Willa Cather. It’s great to hear that this is coming to the Royal Academy next year – hopefully I’ll get a chance to see it for myself!


    • November 6, 2016 at 11:09 am

      Thanks. What can I say ? I’m a bookworm. I look at paintings and I see book covers.
      I hope you’ll have the opportunity to see it in London.


  8. November 6, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    That Hogue painting is amazing – wonderful post, thank you!


    • November 7, 2016 at 8:17 am

      I stayed a while in front of that painting.
      I’m glad you enjoyed my billet.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. November 7, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Fascinating post! Danielle from A Work in Progress recently introduced me to American paintings and particularly this one that happens to be right in your period of interest: Stone City, Iowa by Grant Wood ( It’s so interesting to put books and paintings side by side. Which ones were your favorites?


    • November 7, 2016 at 6:58 pm

      My favourite one is Street Life in Harlem.
      I also love Hopper but didn’t include him in my billet. I linked him to books by Joan Didion in previous posts.


  10. November 10, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Marvellous, and tremendous connections with literature. I’ll catch this when it hits the Royal Academy.

    My favourite from your post was also Street Life in Harlem.


    • November 10, 2016 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks, Max. Let me know what you think of this exhibition when you attend it.


  1. November 9, 2016 at 11:51 pm
  2. January 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm
  3. May 31, 2017 at 9:48 am

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