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Norman MacLeish (1890 – 1975)

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Southern Indiana, oil on canvas, 27 x 34 inches, 1937, signed and dated lower left, titled verso with price ($250), bares label from the Fifty-First Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940, possible remains of another label, original frame.


About the Painting

Southern Indiana is a beautiful example of Norman MacLeish’s works which depict his native Midwest - in this case, Indiana, the eastern neighbor of his home state, Illinois. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, MacLeish portrayed the American Scene using an ordered, edited, and stylized approach similar to his fellow Chicago Art Institute students, Grant Wood, and Dale Nichols. Although devoid of people, MacLeish brings Southern Indiana to life by sculpting the landscape with dramatic light and shadow with a few trees dotting the horizon. The hills, called “knobs” in the local parlance, undulate below the farm buildings which occupy the middle of the canvas, seemingly taking on a life of their own. In Southern Indiana, MacLeish doesn’t dwell on the challenges and miseries of the Great Depression which continued into mid-1930s when he completed this work. Rather. MacLeish celebrates the natural beauty of the landscape and how the farm comfortably integrates into its surroundings, providing us a sunny and optimistic view of the country.

About the Artist

Norman MacLeish was a prominent leader in the Illinois arts community during the 1930s and 1940s. He was born in Glencoe, Illinois, to a prominent family. MacLeish grew up on a palatial estate, Craig Lea, overlooking Lake Michigan. His father was a business leader and one of the founders of the University of Chicago. His mother, Martha Hilliard, had been the president of Rockford College. Both parents were advocates for progressive education. One of Norman’s brothers was Archibald MacLeish, a prize-winning writer and poet who served as the Librarian of Congress during the Roosevelt administration. Norman’s other brother, Kenneth, was killed during World War I and a World War II naval destroyer was named after him. The family home, Craig Lea, was visited by prominent civic and artistic leaders, including settlement house founder, Jane Addams, poet, Carl Sandburg, photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, and the artists Francis Chapin, Aaron Bohrod and Gertrude Abercrombie. Normal MacLeish graduated from Williams College and the University of Pennsylvania. He studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and with Pierre Vignal in Paris. During the New Deal, MacLeish served as a Supervisor for the WPA program in Chicago. He exhibited widely during the 1930s and 1940s, showing more than twenty paintings over the course of of nearly fifteen years at the Art Institute of Chicago where he won the Logan Prize in 1938. Other major exhibitions included the New York World’s Fair, the Golden Gate International Exhibition, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. MacLeish’s work explored the American Scene of his native upper Midwest, as well as places he traveled, including California. Late in life, MacLeish moved to Florida. His death in 1975 was national news. He is listed in Who was Who in American Art and other major references.


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