The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties—also known as the Jazz Age—was a time of great political, social, and cultural change in America. New forms of artistic expression such as illustrative jazz music, colorful talkies, and geometric forms captivated the public. And the post-war economy surged in both industry and consumerism, which led to widespread optimism in America.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Cactus, 1931, oil on canvas, 45 1/8 x 30 1/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. 1950-134-186.

Inspired by numerous industrial advancements, Precisionism was an American art movement that celebrated the modernized urban landscape. Artists like Charles Sheeler, Morton Schamberg, and Edward Weston pulled from new architecture and design to inform works of art. Sharp lines, geometric shapes, and realistic compositions were core characteristics of Precisionist works.

Other art movements also infiltrated the art scene. With the influx of European artists during the early 20th century, Dada made its way to New York City through artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. The city was a refuge for Dadaists who rejected conformist capitalism overseas. The movement was considered highly controversial and its products chaotic and irregular, and eventually the style faded in the general post-war optimism. Surrealism, exemplified by artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy, was the direct descendant of Dada and depicted the modern world through dreamlike compositions and jarring juxtapositions of everyday objects. The level of precision used throughout surrealist imagery forced the viewer to question the real and the imaginary.

 

The first refrigerator. First electric refrigerator produced in a large eastern plant is shown as it rolled from the assembly line on October 15, 1928. Between that date and the end of civilian refrigerator production for the duration the company built 4,523,665 of them. 1928. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

The first electric refrigerator produced in a large eastern plant is shown as it rolled of the assembly line on October 15, 1928. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

New technologies influenced a change in lifestyle as well as in the arts. The Ford Motor Company produced an affordable automobile for the masses, reducing the need for public transportation. The assembly-line process used by Ford was mimicked by other industries as well, particularly those that produced household appliances. These advancements helped to liberate the stereotypical housewife, relaxing the requirements of her day-to-day routine. By this time, women were working their way towards social and political equality; the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Many women enrolled in university to become teachers and nurses, and many unmarried women entered the workforce as phone operators and sales clerks.

 

C.W. Turner, A flapper girl, ca. 1922. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

The “flapper”—a fashionable, carefree young woman—is perhaps the most notable image of the Roaring Twenties. With shortened hem lines, slender shapes, loose waists, cloche hats, cupid bow lips, and t-strap shoes, women transformed themselves. French designers Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, and Caroline Reboux crafted coveted apparel and accessories during this time. Department stores popped up across the nation, targeting female customers and the rising demand of ready-made clothing.

 

Gene Buck and Herbert Victor. Weaving My Dreams. Harms, Inc., New York, NY, 1922. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Gene Buck and Herbert Victor. Weaving My Dreams. Harms, Inc., New York, NY, 1922. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

With a new sense of independence and equality, women began to act more like their male counterparts. They smoked cigarettes, wore more form-fitting clothing, drank alcohol in speakeasies, shimmied to new jazz sensations, and felt sexually free. The entertainment industry capitalized on this new American girl concept on stage and in film. The Ziegfeld Follies was a popular stage revue during the early 20th century that featured entertainers such as Ann Pennington, Ina Clare, and the Eaton Sisters. They also included a chorus of young women who embodied the new woman: thin, sensual, and uninhibited.

 

Sheeler - Jazz Singer Film

The Jazz Singer, 1927.

During the 20s, the entertainment industry also saw dramatic changes in format. Vaudeville was a popular form of theater that featured a series of short, unrelated song-and-dance performances. Broadway drew in the larger crowds with light-hearted storylines and big dance numbers. Silent film was the big-screen sensation that spawned film genres and introduced new production techniques. MGM, Warner Bros. Pictures, and Paramount were the major film studios of the time, churning out many short and feature-length films each year. The early 1920s introduced color to silent film, but with the commercial success of the first talkie, The Jazz Singer in 1927, theater and silent film became less appealing to viewers. Entertainers could earn more money and greater fame through the unanticipated success of synchronized sound; major players in the film industry who made the shift from silent to sound were Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Buster Keaton.

Jack Delano. Chicago, Illinois. Good Sheperd Community Center. Players rehearsing a new play by Langston Hughes. Apr, 1942. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing by the start of the Roaring Twenties. African Americans had already begun making their way from the rural South to the cities in the North. In Harlem, artists, writers, and musicians began to cultivate a strong sense of racial pride through their work. Some of the key players of the movement were Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston, and Alain Locke. Storytelling traditions were reignited and new ones established, transforming arts and culture in New York City and beyond.

 

Samuel H. Gottscho (1875-1971), Rockefeller Center. RCA Building, general view from old Union Club, 1933. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Samuel H. Gottscho (1875-1971), Rockefeller Center. RCA Building, general view from old Union Club, 1933. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Literary icons used the changing economic, social, and political climate as inspiration for classics such as The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Ulysses by James Joyce, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Algonquin Roundtable, a celebrated collaborative group of writers, actors, and critics, formed during the decade. Many of these authors used their narratives as a critique of the society’s new flashy, gilded façade.

Irving Underhill, Am. Radiator Co. Bldg. ca. 1924. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Irving Underhill, Am. Radiator Co. Bldg. ca. 1924. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

 

Modernism infiltrated architecture and design as well, both commercially and residentially. Art Deco was the major interior and commercial design aesthetic and embodied the exuberant gilded theme of the era. Skyscrapers like the Chrysler building and the General Electric building paired modern lines with classical geometric shapes reminiscent of those found on the Mayan pyramids. Frank Lloyd Wright rejected traditional residential blueprints and experimented with new materials and concepts with these same Mayan motifs in mind. He designed homes to fit organically within their environments, inspiring other architects to break away from tradition and create a new aesthetic that pleased their wealthier and more contemporary clients.

catalogue-cover-01

Take the exhibition home!

Our stunning 234-page catalogue includes photographs by Sheeler and others, plus essays written by scholars, historians, and archivists.

Buy Today!

sheeler-icons-01

Google Art Project

Experience the Michener Art Museum’s permanent collection in a whole new way with the Google Art Project. You can now wander the museum galleries using the same technology as Google Street View.

Share your email here for up-to-date alerts about events and news related to the exhibition
Newsletter Signup
Sending