Modernism emerged as a cultural response to the technological, societal, and scientific developments of the late nineteenth century. Its very name reflects the value placed by modernists on the present and the future. Conversely, modernists rebelled against the past. Modernism attempted to make distinctive cultural forms for the present. Modernism was an international movement with most of its major figures clustered in Europe. Despite this, the United States contributed a vital element of the movement's development, especially in music, architecture, and literature. Every area of culture was affected by modernism, and as such, modernism touched the common man. Even in religion, the term modernism was applied to progressive Protestant leaders who sought to reintroduce Christianity to the modern man.

In visual art, no single modernist movement emerged. Instead, a number of varying artistic movements developed under the broad label of modern art. Major international styles of modern art included cubism, futurism, Dada, and surrealism. Each of these styles contributed to American modernism in art. Cubism, exemplified by Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), redefined how to portray reality on canvas. Futurism focused on portraying the urban setting. Dada reacted to society and its tastes in an extreme way. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) presented a urinal as Fountain (1917) and was rejected by art critics. Surrealism sought to explore the unconscious as represented by Salvador Dali (1904–1989). Although the major figures of these styles were European, their influence was felt in the United States. American styles included precisionism and regionalism. Precisionism's leading exponent was Charles Sheelet (1883–1965). Grant Wood (1891–1942) and his American Gothic (1930) illustrated regionalism. Aspiring writers and artists congregated in central locations throughout the country such as Greenwich Village in New York City.

In modern architecture, the United States made valuable contributions to the international movement through the Chicago school. The Chicago school developed shortly after the Chicago fire of 1871. Its formation coincided with a time when technological advances began to allow larger structures than had been possible in the past. The Chicago school, or Commercial style, often designed buildings for businesses. This modern style was built by first constructing an iron or steel skeleton that allowed the architects to build taller skyscrapers, such as the Empire State Building (1931). In addition to commercial buildings, modern architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), excelled at designing residential homes, as seen in Wright's now iconic home, Falling Water (1936). Influential figures included William Le Baron Jenney (1832–1907), Louis Henry Sullivan (1856–1924), and, most famous of all, Wright. Other major schools of thought in modern architecture included art nouveau, which was popular in Europe, and the craft movement, which reacted against the Industrial Revolution by emphasizing human craftsmanship. The craft movement was represented in the United States by Charles Sumner Greene (1868–1957) and his brothers.

In religion, modernism expressed itself as an attempt to synthesize modern scientific thought and traditional Christian theology into a theology that reflected the current age. In Catholicism, modernism developed as a movement in Europe and was condemned by Pius X in 1907. At the same time that modernism was emerging in Europe, Protestant theologians in the United States sought to have a scientific faith. Rooted in the Unitarianism of New England and the influx of the German theological tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889), theological modernists embraced critical methods of dating the Bible, arguing that the Bible was the product of the culture of the Hebrews and early church. Acceptance of the work of Charles Darwin challenged the traditional understanding of Genesis. Finally, a shift in theological emphases caused modernists to embrace the Social Gospel and deemphasize the need for personal conversion in favor of societal conversion to the principles of Christianity. Major leaders included Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) of Rochester Theological Seminary and Charles Briggs (1841–1913) and Henry Sloane Coffin (1877–1954) of Union Theological Seminary, as well as such leading pastors as Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), Washington Gladden (1836–1918), and Josiah Strong (1847–1916). Conservative Protestants reacted to this liberalization of theology by actively seeking to remove modernists from their denominations and seminaries during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s. The fundamentalists lost these battles, and the modernists secured control of the mainline denominations.

At its root, modernism sought to gain independence from the past and embrace the present and future. Although the American experience of modernism was only a part of the international movement, artists and writers from the United States contributed notably to the field. In religion, modernism became associated with progressive views on scripture and theology in Christianity. Modernism developed as a way for the common man to express his view of being in a changing world.

Nathan V. Lentfer

See also: Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910) ; Evangelicalism and Populism ; Rauschenbusch, Walter (1861–1918) ; Social Christianity ; Social Gospel ; Steinbeck, John (1902–1968) ; Sullivan, Louis Henry (1856–1924) ; Wright, Frank Lloyd (1867–1959)


Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, & Modernity 1900–1950. Vol. 2. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.