American Gothic

What do you think of when you think of the 1930s, may I ask? Perhaps a grainy newsreel featuring a zeppelin over New Jersey? The rise of fascism? Or a weary farmer looking over a field devastated by dust? These are all within the realm of possibility, of course. The Art Institute of Chicago, voted #1 museum in the world on TripAdvisor, recently opened the exhibit America After the Fall: Paintings of the 1930s to look at how artists around the U.S. redefined the modern condition through their portfolio of work during this decade.

With works by Grant Wood (yes, American Gothic is there, naturally), Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, and Thomas Hart Benton, the paintings are organized into a range of thematic categories, including "Dystopian Visions", "History Renewed", and "Modernism Refined".

As you enter the gallery, you might hear the plaintive folksongs of Woody Guthrie surround you, and you'll want to pay close attention to the reactions of fellow visitors as they explore the various corners of the well-curated exhibit. 

And for my favorites? Here's a few you'll want to pay close attention as you make your way through the works on offer here now through September 18, 2016.

Charles Green Shaw. Wrigley's, 1937 

Wrigley by Charles Green ShawSuspended in front of a stylized urban landscape of skyscrapers aplenty, a pack of Wrigley's celebrated spearmint gum beckons the visitors with its promise of cool refreshment. If this sounds like ad copy, it would fit the intent of the painting perfectly. Shaw created the work on behalf of the Wrigley Company, who chose not to use this piece as part of their advertising portfolio.


Edward Hopper. New York Movie, 1939  

Edward Hopper's

In the 1930s, movies offered a form of delirious escape from the portents of an impending Second World War, the Great Depression, and other discontents. Edward Hopper spent a fair amount of time sketching grand movie palace interiors around New York and this work is a manifestation of his interest in such spaces. The model for the seemingly bored usherette is his own wife, Jo, and a careful viewer will note a myriad of compelling details by taking time to pause and reflect.


Ben Shahn. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931. 

Ben Shahn's The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

Ben Shahn's work across different media remains the benchmark for American social realism as he documented urban poverty, social injustice, and other topics that continue to have resonance for us in the twenty-first century. This is one of his most celebrated works and it tells the story of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were executed in 1920 for crimes that almost certainly did not commit. This painting depicts Sacco and Vanzetti after their execution under the watchful eye of the three persons responsible for deciding that they should not have a retrial. It's a powerful work and one that deserves your close attention.


The Essentials

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.

  • Hours: Fridays to Wednesdays 10:30 a.m. — 5 p.m.; Thursdays 10:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.
  • General admission: $19-25; children under 14 are free


Have even more fun this season with these 4 summer highlights happening on Chicago's Museum Campus. For arts and culture with a budget in mind, check out free museum days in Chicago and some 20+ museums and attractions that are always free.

Photos courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago