Working primarily in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, many artists turned their eyes toward the comedy and tragedy of American life, exploring the everyday lives of everyday people. These painters rejected the country clubs and concert halls, and filled their canvases with steel workers and pool players, sharecroppers and suffragettes, beach bums and crowded bus stations. Depicting life as it is, with all the rough edges, their work is a celebration of the energy and pathos of the American spirit. Organized by the Michener Art Museum, this exhibition sampled some of the finest work from this important genre of 20th-century painting, drawing on the unique and extraordinary collection of regional collectors Lee and Barbara Maimon.

Many of these paintings are bright and colorful, drawing in the viewer with their vibrancy. On closer inspection, however, social messages become apparent. The plight of the poor, homeless, and hopeless is depicted and celebrated—the couple that spends evenings in a bar, smoking cigarettes and talking; the fishermen whose yellow slickers shine with brine as they struggle to bring in their catch; the tired slouch of office workers heading home on the subway, noses buried in the day’s paper; and the hopelessness of half-clothed female burlesque dancers.

‘Proper works of art were not supposed to remind people that their world was squalid and dirty. Artists weren’t supposed to be empathetic toward the unfortunate,’ said Brian H. Peterson, the Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator at the Museum. ‘While our focus in on the landscape tradition at the Michener, we feel it’s important to share this honest look at the human condition, with our audience, especially give the economic turmoil we’ve all been experiencing.’