What was 1920s Precisionism?

Precisionism is considered the first native style of art in the United States developed by American artists Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler. This style of painting is inclined to using geometric spaces and applying smooth and sharp paint to portray elements of the growing industrialization and modernization in the U.S. Basically, Precisionism combined the important features of Cubism (the style of painting that uses geometric forms to present subjects) and Futurism (the style of painting that portrays the dynamism of modern life). In addition, artists who are into Precisionism tend to completely detach themselves from their work by a technique that involves smoothing out their brushstrokes as if erasing their personal handwriting. 

The term “Precisionism” is widely believed to be coined in the 1920s by Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art during that time, but there is also evidence for the claim that the term may have been coined by Sheeler. Nonetheless, Precisionism is a significant art style that defined the Roaring Twenties. 

Inception of Precisionism

Although Precisionism was a trend in the 1920s, this style of painting has actually been in existence since the colonial period. It re-emerged after World War I and became more popular during the 1920s and early 1930s. Despite drawing inspiration from the European art movements of Cubism and Futurism, Precisionists considered their style purely American and did not recognize the European influence. 

Subjects of Precisionism

Precisionist paintings are readily recognizable for the subjects they present. They almost always portray the landscape of America – its urban and rural skylines, buildings, and machinery – on a representational canvas. These structures are painted using sharp and smooth geometrical forms. Giving the impression of a “cool art”, Precisionist paintings let viewers see the subject at a distance. 

Most Precisionist paintings include the following urban subjects: skyline, city grid, skyscrapers, apartment houses, towers, suspension bridges, tunnels, subway platforms, streets. Rural subjects include country roads, cottages, barns, and farm houses. Other Precisionists also paint still life.

In addition, while Precisionist paintings expose the dynamism of an industrialized society and new technologies, they exclude people and human activity on the canvas. 

Not a social criticism

Precisionism is often read as a form of social criticism owing to its subtle portrayal of the negative effects of modernization. A famous example for this is Elsie Drigg’s 1926 painting “Pittsburgh” which was interpreted as a declaration of environmental concern because it portrayed black and gray smokestacks and clouds of smokes as if it to suggest a polluted environment caused by industrialization. 

This view on Precisionism is further intensified by the fact that this style thrived during the Roaring Twenties pop culture scene when various social movements went into action. However, Precisionists were unitedly firm to say that their art style was neither a new movement nor a form of social criticism. Precisionist paintings of skylines or streets or factories were not comments of the environment they depicted. 

Frontrunners of Precisionism

Precisionist artists never created a formal organization for themselves, nor did they create an art manifesto declaring their intentions or motives. However, they have been fully recognized in the society and were called the “Immaculates” for their stern and creative style. They were also recognized for other names such as Sterilists, Cubist-Realists, and Modern Classicists. These names were eventually replaced by the more conventional term “Precisionists”.

Precisionism was largely dominated by Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. Sheeler is also known as one of the greatest American photographers in the early 20th century. Other prominent precisionists were Ralston Crawford, Preston Dickinson, Niles Spencer, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Precisionists mostly exhibited their works at the Daniel Gallery in New York City.

Important Works of Precisionism

Some of the iconic works of Precisionism which can be viewed in many major museum collections in the United States are:

  • Machinery (Charles Sheeler, 1920)
  • Brooklyn Bridge (Joseph Stella, 1920)
  • Lucky Strike (Stuart Davis, 1921)
  • Steeple and Street (Stuart Davis, 1922)
  • Delmonico Building (Charles Sheeler, 1926)
  • Street, New York I (George O’Keeffe, 1926)
  • Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford River Rouge Plant (Charles Sheeler, 1927)
  • Radiator Building, Night New York (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927) 
  • I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (Charles Demuth, 1928)
  • Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster (Charles Demuth, 1930)
  • American Landscape (Charles Sheeler, 1930)
  • Americana (Charles Sheeler, 1931)
  • Chimney and Watertower (Charles Demuth, 1931)
  • Maitland Bridge (Ralston Crawford, 1938) 
  • Lights in an Aircraft Plant (Ralston Crawford, 1945)
  • Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (George Ault, 1946)
  • Amoskeag Canal (Charles Sheeler, 1948)


Precisionism is an artistic expression that portrayed the vigor of modern life in the Roaring Twenties. Building on the influences of Cubism and Futurism, this style of art managed to showcase the dynamism that occurred in many societies while the United States was embracing industrialization and modernization. While Precisionism lived a short life of over ten years, it marked an enduring influence to many of the significant art movements such as the American Scene Painting and Pop Art in the decades that succeeded the 1920s.