The Midwest is a region with a wealth of artistic talent. It includes major cities, small towns, beautiful wilderness, and vast rural landscapes. It’s an area that has nurtured, raised, and inspired some of the most famous artists of all time. Let’s take a look at some famous artists of the Midwest.
And we are not just talking about rural landscape paintings (although these are important!). We’re talking about world-famous pop artists, authors who changed literature, and filmmakers who have redefined cinema.
There are far more than we can possibly include in a single article, but here are nine famous artists working with various mediums who made a crater on the national scene. All of these artists have roots right here in the Midwest.
Visual Art (Paintings, Drawings, Etc.)
Perhaps the most quintessential Midwestern artist. Born in 1891 in Anamosa, Iowa, Grant Wood spent his early life on a rural Iowa farm rich with idyllic settings. His upbringing also held the scratch-and-claw struggles faced by all American farmers. He developed his love of art while a young man and attended the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft.
15th- and 16th-century realism art inspired Wood to create his most famous painting, American Gothic (1930). It won immediate praise and was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. It has become one of the most recognizable images in American art. Wood would continue his career with various paintings of small-town life, Midwestern landscapes, and historical settings.
Thomas Hart Benton
Born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton was born into a political family, affording a life of privilege unknown to many artists. Despite his upbringing, Benton’s paintings were connected to working-class middle America and the blue-collar Midwest. He spent time in artistic epicenters like Paris and New York but returned to the Midwest and continued his career in Missouri.
He is best known for large murals that depict rural America, which include both the beauty and greatness of the region.
Charles Marion Russell
Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Marion Russell is best known for his American West depictions. He created paintings of cowboys, mountain men, Native Americans, western landscapes, and more. One of his most famous paintings is a work titled Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross’ Hole (1912), which is on display at Montana’s state capitol in Helena.
Russell is largely considered the original cowboy artist. His work inspired other painters, and his landscapes are said to have influenced director John Ford, who masterfully used epic Western scenery in his films.
Although her works are not associated with the Midwest (like the works of Wood and Benton), Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wisconsin roots certainly played a role in her artistic development. Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (near Madison), O’Keeffe was raised on a dairy farm and received at-home art lessons.
She had a major impact on modern art that lasts to this day. While a Midwesterner by heritage, she was inspired by the breathtaking landscapes of New Mexico and moved to the region later in life.
Of all the Midwestern musicians throughout history, few combined musical talent and artistic expression like Prince. Born in Minneapolis in 1958 and given the name Prince Rogers Nelson, he became interested in music at an early age.
Chart-topping hits like Purple Rain and Raspberry Beret give Prince a pop star image. His musical skills and pushing-the-boundaries approach made him an icon. As Midwesterners (especially Minnesotans) know, Prince’s talents and influence go far beyond those of an ordinary pop star.
Possibly the most famous American artist of all time, Mark Twain, was a proud middle-American. Born in Florida, Missouri, under the name of Samuel Clemens, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, when he was only four. The nearby Mississippi River made a deep impression on his writings, which often featured the river as an important story element.
Twain’s voice has had a huge effect on storytelling. Countless authors have adopted his relaxed, accessible style, and he remains an important part of the writing industry to this very day.
Born in the prairie town of Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1908, Louis L’Amour may not have invented the Western genre, but few did more to spread its popularity. Writing frontier stories, his books became the foundation for Western movies, including Hondo (1953) and How the West Was Won (1963).
L’Amour created a seemingly endless stream of exciting stories that spread the Western genre from coast to coast, setting the stage for its domination in American cinema.
To those who don’t appreciate the artistic quality of Western films, John Wayne may seem like anything but an artist. To many, he may be the stern actor who defined the intense, commanding cowboy role, but his emotional parts in The Searchers (1958), The Cowboys (1972), and The Shootist (1976) show a range of acting few can achieve. All of these performances show he was an artist in the truest sense.
Born as Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, Wayne made a major impact on the Western film genre. To this day, he is arguably the most important actor in this artistic medium.
Joel and Ethan Coen were born in the 1950s in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. Their mother was an art historian, which must have impacted their career choices and their approach to filmmaking.
Being fascinated with film early on, the Coen brothers created movies that are hard to pigeonhole into a single genre. Fargo (1994), for example, was a humorous crime and murder drama that played out during a frozen Minnesota winter. Above all, the Coens brought an acceptance of absurdity to cinema that lasts to this day.
As you can see, the Midwest is a rich tapestry that has inspired and created numerous artists working in all kinds of mediums. From paintings to music to literature to cinema, the artistic world would be far different without the contributions of these Midwesterners!
Don’t assume art is the sole property of coastal states; here in the Midwest, we know that middle America has created artists who are second to none!