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American Painting in the 1930’s

The Age of Anxiety

The 1930's were decisive in more ways than one for a modern art scene coming to the fore in the United States, at a particularly complex moment in its history when there could be no cut-and-dried definition of American modern art.From abstraction to "socialist" realism, the esthetic worlds of painters like Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, or Edward Hopper operated side by side, confronting each other in the same creative centers.
Mounted jointly with the Art Institute of Chicago, this exhibition will feature a set of fifty to sixty pictures taken from prestigious American public collections (Art Institute in Chicago, the Whitney Museum or the Museum of Modern Art in New-York...) and also private collections, whose diversity reflects the great richness of this pre-World War II period.


Grant Wood (1891-1942), American Gothic, 1930
© The Art Institute of Chicago

Judith A. Barter, Field-McCormick Chair and Curator, Department of American Art, The Art Institute of Chicago
Laurence des Cars, general heritage curator, director of the Musée de l'Orangerie

In Media partnership with Paris Première, L’estampille-L’objet d’art, Libération, Le Point and France Culture.

With the generous support of the Terra Foundation For American Art and of Hoche Société d’Avocats


Exhibition also presented in Chicago, Art Institute, from 5 June to 9 September 2016 and in London, Royal Academy of Arts, from 25 February to 4 June 2017.

Presentation of the exhibition produced by the Art Institute of Chicago


In the space of ten years, the United States saw the rise of artists who are today considered as some of the greatest names of 20th century art. In all likelihood, the dramatic situation of the country, shaken by the 1929 crash, prompted a desire for a new and intense expression, whether this was showing the serious and anxiety-provoking reality of daily life, or turning to archetypal models in the name of national pride and a belief in the future that one hoped to retain, or whether it was rebelling against the downward spiral of an era worn down by inequalities and discrimination.

American painting of the 1930s is characterised by great diversity. One example of this is the contrasting styles of Georgia O’Keeffe’s enigmatic, minimalist still lifes and the Neo-Cubism of Stuart Davis, who, in New York-Paris No 3 (1931) put forward an astonishing urban landscape, deconstructed and realist at the same time. One year previously, Grant Wood had completed American Gothic, a controversial masterpiece that became an icon, in which critics identified both a satire of rural Puritanism and a tribute to the traditions of the Midwest and a eulogy to the spirit of the first settlers. It is the first time that the painting, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, has been exhibited in Europe.

American Contrasts: industrial power and a return to the land
The Wall Street Crash in New York, on 29 October 1929, plunged the United States, and Europe in its wake, into a dark decade. The Great Depression swept across the country bringing unemployment, expropriation and a general sense of insecurity. Curiously, against this background, the industrial world retained a strong appeal in a country searching for reliable and solid models. The views of factories by Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth demonstrate this. But many artists evoked with equal force the damage caused by the crash: Joe Jones chose the difficult conditions of the dockers in Saint Louis – cheap labour, victims of a shortage of jobs – and Alice Neel, a communist activist, took as her model Pat Whalen, the iconic defender of the workers whose determination during the great strikes she captures perfectly.

The world of farming and seasonal work also managed to preserve a reassuring image. The rural landscapes of Grant Wood and Marvin Cone offer a peaceful, alluring view of a world that nonetheless also experienced great difficulties, as Thomas Hart Benton depicted in his paintings of agricultural workers in the south. And when Alexandre Hogue gave his “mother earth” the appearance of a woman, in 1936 (Erosion No2, Philbrook Museum of Art), he revealed above all a naked, tired body, a direct metaphor for the drought that agricultural workers so often had to face.

The City as Entertainment
In the towns and cities, the difficulties of daily life paradoxically provoked a great desire for entertainment. Philip Evergood and Arthur Dove, in their very different styles – one borrowing from Naïve Realism and the other from Abstraction – illustrated this unabashed taste for music, dance and parties, a taste that was at times transgressive, as Paul Cadmus perceived it when he depicted the exuberance and devil-may-care attitude of the sailors coming ashore after a long time away at sea (The Fleet’s In, 1934). The street becomes a subject in its own right, as in Street Life by William H. Johnson, an African-American painter, who offers a fascinating view of Harlem, with an elegantly dressed couple in front of a bar. Twenty Cent Movie, by Reginald Marsh, illustrates the passion for the cinema. But the pensive young woman that Edward Hopper depicts disconnected from the scene in New York Movie (1939) shows, nonetheless, that under this veneer of frivolity and pleasure, solitude and anxiety are still present.

History Revisited                                                                                                       
Faced with a disappointing present and an uncertain future, American history became a refuge. From the memory of the first settlers in Doris Lee’s work (Thanksgiving) to the War of Independence in the work of Grant Wood (Daughters of Revolution) and the depiction of the Shaker community in Charles Sheeler’s work (Home, Sweet Home), historical themes were ever present. Some artists also evoked a less glorious past, like America’s history of slavery (Aaron Douglas, Aspiration), or one confined to obscurity, like the traditions of the first inhabitants of this country, which Kingsland Morris makes reference to in "Indian Compositions". Under Roosevelt, the federal government set up a specific programme (the Public Works of Art Project) broadly supporting works recording American life. There were many commissions for large murals for official buildings, like the one designed by Ilya Bolotowsky for the World’s Fair in New York, in 1938-1939.

Nightmares and Reality
This patriotic enthusiasm should not hide another, much darker side of painting in the 1930s, one that brought back forcefully the doubts of an era in the grip of recession, poverty and war. Artists interpreted this feeling of anxiety and malaise in their self-portraits, in which, far from enhancing their image, they turned to derision (Portrait of the Artist as a Clown, by Walt Kuhn, in 1932) or offered a tortured, almost monstrous reflection of themselves (Ivan Albright, Self-portrait, 1935). By depicting herself as a child with an image of herself as an adult in the background, hung improbably on the wall of the room, Helen Lundeberg demonstrated, in passing, the influence of Surrealism (Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, 1935).
The national and international backdrop was alarming, and artists were not indifferent to the dramas that were afflicting Europe in particular: Bombardment, by Philip Guston, and The Eternal City, by Peter Blume (who puts in a grotesque portrait of Mussolini) clearly express their anxiety at the rise of Fascism in Spain and Italy. The unexpected appearance of Lenin’s face in the Phoenix desert that Louis Guglielmi presents in a painting from 1935 (Sheldon Museum of Art) shows how acutely aware the painters were of the political issues of the time. In 1933, with his cynical title, American Justice, Joe Jones denounced the racist acts of violence that the United States also faced.

Towards an American Modern Art
In the early 1940s, American painting was divided between an inclination towards Abstract art, represented by Pollock, and an attachment to the cold realism heralded by Hopper. Two tendencies, which might seem far apart, contradictory even, if it were not that both Pollock and Hopper were keen to express their innermost thoughts and to transcribe on to their canvases the questions and doubts that appeared during the troubled decade that had just finished. We know how much lyrical Abstract Expressionism on the one hand, and Pop Art on the other, owe to the styles of these artists. In the end, it is therefore a wholly American modern art, both in its forms and in its themes, that seems to have taken root and even found its identity during the 1930s.

Exploring the exhibition, led by Laurence des Cars, general curator, director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, exhibition curator.
Thursday 20 October, 7pm

Free, on booking
By telephone: +33 (0)1 44 50 43 00
By email

To accompany visitors in their discovery of the exhibition, guided tours are available on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 4pm, from 19 October 2016 to 21 January 2017.

Without prior booking. Report to the information desk 15 minutes before the start of the visit.

The American Dream - For families, children aged 5+
After a tour of the exhibition immersing the public into the world of American painting, visitors will be invited to take part in a workshop.

"Here is the opportunity to cross the Atlantic and rediscover America, the America that picked itself up after the 1929 crash, and depicted itself in all its aspects: from the city dwellers in their high towers to the farmers cultivating their vast fields, everything was a subject for a work of art. In the workshop, you can put on the clogs and the metal-rimmed glasses, not forgetting the pitchfork and apron, ready for a family photo to put into your landscape painted in the style of the artists Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton: your "American way" where "austerity is not obligatory!"

Wednesdays 26 October, 9, 23 November, 7, 21 December 2016, 11 January 2017 and Saturdays 29 October, 5, 12, 19, 26 November, 3, 10, 17 December 2016 / 7 and 14 January 2017 at 3pm.

On booking
By telephone: 01 44 50 43 01
By mail

The 1930s in America in the longer term. Between fragility and affirmation

America in the 1930s experienced one of those moments of breakdown that marks the history of a country obsessed with the idea of happiness and perpetually preoccupied with the idea of the end of history. The lecture will place this period, marked by a crisis that was quickly named the “Great Depression” and by the New Deal that came out of it, within the longer term of American cultural and social history in order to offer clues towards an understanding a rich and complex pictorial creative output that remained deeply rooted in a metaphysical questioning about the future.
Jean Kempf, Professor, Université Lumière-Lyon 2
Wednesday 9 November 2016, 7pm

Artists working under the New Deal: Federal Project Number One 

In May 1933, when the first measures of the New Deal were adopted to combat the effects of the Great Depression, the painter George Biddle suggested to President Roosevelt that the federal government might finance large-scale murals. He saw in this a means to exalt the "social ideals" set up by the new Democrat administration. Painters and sculptors could participate in the political and moral reconstruction of the country. Like the construction workers and industrial workers, those in the world of culture would be guaranteed a stable income and could thus play their part in the economic recovery. This plan took shape in December 1933. In under ten years, the American federal government financed around 2,500 murals, over 100,000 paintings, and 18,000 sculptures.
This lecture will try to recall in a few words the origin and achievements of Federal Project Number One, designed to be both a policy for subsidised work and a popular education programme – or, as its opponents saw it, nothing more than a pure propaganda campaign.
Didier Aubert, senior lecturer, Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3 – THALIM
Wednesday 16 November 2016, 7pm

RKO-A studio at the heart of Hollywood in the 1930s

Founded in 1929, RKO Pictures opened one of the most beautiful chapters of Hollywood cinema in the 1930s, from King Kong to Fred Astaire, an enchanted interlude that closed in 1940 with the groundbreaking film "Citizen Kane".
Anecdotes, film clips... Serge Bromberg’s presentation is a unique journey through the Hollywood of the 1930s.
Serge Bromberg, director of Lobster films, film historian
Wednesday 7 December, 7pm

On booking
By telephone: 01 44 50 43 01
By mail

American authors of the 1930s were witnesses to America’s first great moral and social crisis. An actor will introduce you once again to John Steinbeck, John Fante and James Agee and others, through the most revealing texts of this period.

Friday 6 January 2017, 6.30pm

On booking
By telephone: 01 44 50 43 01
By mail

Edward Hopper and the Blank Canvas

Authors: Didier Ottinger et Jean-Pierre Devillers
Directed by Jean-Pierre Devillers (2012)
Produced by Ideale Audience, Arte France, RMN-GP, Centre Pompidou
Duration: 51 mins

Screenings at the auditorium at 10am, 2pm and 4pm

The many references in the contemporary films to Edward Hopper's works, as well as the widespread reproduction of some of his paintings have made his universe familiar to many. His unclasifiable figurations weave a dialogue between appearances and light, between the unmistakeable and enigma.
Focusing on the artist's personal life in the context of 20th century America, Edward Hopper and the Blank Canvas bears witness to a fiercely independent painter, who was aware of the issues of his era, and who was hostile to the imprisonment that a modern American art opposing realism and abstraction could lead him to.This film brings the artist to life, transposing his realist and metaphysical poetry.

After the crash. America of the 30s in film (at the auditorium of the Musée d'Orsay)
During the 1930s, the great American filmmakers (or European filmmakers working in Hollywood) looked into the country’s social evolution after the Great Depression of 1929. These films, some of which heralded Italian Neo-Realism, were interested as much in the towns as in the countryside, in workers as much as farm labourers, and, in general, in all those excluded from the American dream.
Other lighter films focused on the evolution of social mores, at times with a freedom and daring that the Hays Code would begin to challenge in 1934.


1930 is seen as opening the golden age of jazz with the appearance of swing. This was the time of the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, etc, and a repertoire characterised not only by the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc., but also the popular songs of Tin Pan Alley, which provided the framework for the great jazz standards.

Concert with piano and voice
Jeff Cohen, pianist
Isabel Dörfler, singer
Friday 9 December, 7pm

Jazz Quintet
By the students from the jazz and improvised music department of the Paris National Conservatory for Music and Dance.
Friday 13 January 2017, 7pm

On booking
By telephone: 01 44 50 43 01
By mail

Soirée for young people, in partnership with the Ecole du Louvre
Friday 21 January 2017, 6.30pm to 9.30pm

Free admission