Introduction | The City | Company Towns | Documenting the 1930s | Farming

Time Off | Working the Landscape | Working the Waters | Back to KAM


This exhibition was on view from January 8–March 18, 2007 as the museum's contribution to a year-long project of the Lansing Museum Collaborative to feature exhibitions and programs about work and workers' culture. We are pleased to present this online version of American Images, 1900–1950.


The Workers' Landscape: American Images, 1900–1950 examines a period of momentous social and economic changes. Small-scale farms and shops, as well as traditional artisanship, gave way to mass production in a world faced with wars, famines and the Depression. The overall trend was off the farms and into the cities. Company towns formed around factories, mines and other production facilities. Women increasingly entered the workforce in factories and shops.


Thematically, many American artists succumbed to a powerful dose of nostalgia for all that was becoming lost. Even city subjects were frequently depicted in a positive light. Stylistically, modernist European developments in abstraction were largely ignored.


Regionalism, one of the popular movements, was a realistic, figurative, even conservative style embraced by Thomas Hart Benton and others. Their work promoted traditional values of the American family and agrarian roots, vibrant with life and welling hearts.


Work in the forests and on the sea seemed equally joyous and fulfilling. Other artists focused on such daily and leisure activities as shopping, sports, the circus and Billy Sunday’s fiery sermons. As hard as things were during these sometimes terrible years, there were always bright spots.


Through the Depression years, only the Farm Security Administration’s photographic surveys brought one closer to hardships endured by the tenant farmer, child worker and homeless mother.


In the first half of the 20th century, even the work of being an artist was changing. The Federal Art Project, a Depression-era program under the Works Progress Administration, employed thousands of artists. Formal art academies were increasingly joined by more democratic educational options including artist-run schools such as the Art Students League of New York (founded in 1875), as well as college and museum programs where many artists in this exhibition attended classes and taught.


Divided into six themes, The Workers’ Landscape explores these changes and choices in early twentieth century America.

IntroductionThe CityCompany TownsDocumenting the 1930sFarming
Time OffWorking the LandscapeWorking the Waters