The Airplane as a Symbol of Modernism

Lesson sponsored by  Bank of America

Advisor: Karen Lucic, Professor of Art, Vassar College.

How did the airplane — with its marvel and mystery — symbolize modernism in the Twenties?

Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange



The airplane offered a potent symbol of man’s innovative thrust into the future. In the 1920s, artists depicted the airplane in canvases that, while creating quite different visual impressions, reflected the shared drive to depict the modern.


  • The “Aeroplane” in Visual Art of the 1920s
    – Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, oil on canvas, 1920    METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
    – Elsie Driggs, Aeroplane, oil on canvas, 1928    MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON

[Find more primary resources on the Twenties in the collection Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s from the National Humanities Center.]


The Airplane. In 1920, the airplane was only seventeen years old—a modern wonder that most people witnessed from the sidelines in theater newsreels and barnstorming air shows. By the end of the decade, however, the airplane had become a phenomenon that one could experience firsthand. Brave souls could travel by passenger airline service, buy their own “Ford flivver of the skies,” or compete to set a flight record like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. The airplane had moved front and center in the American imagination. As such, it offered artists a compelling image for interpreting modernity in the postwar world. As the Brooklyn Museum explained for an exhibition on Machine Age art, “Americans developed an aesthetics of their own, based on the machine. During these years, artists and designers as well as the American public struggled to acknowledge, understand, accept and finally control a machine-driven world.”1

Modernism in American Art. While European modernism was thriving in the early 1900s through avant-garde movements like Cubism and Expressionism, “American modernism” was a term in search of a definition. After World War One, writes art historian Sarah Lowe, American artists “embarked on a search for an authentic modern American idiom. How, precisely, to forge a distinctly American art form, or what it might look like was still unknown.”2 Their search produced an extraordinary range of imagery, marking a distinct break from the prewar Ashcan School and the turn-of-the century American Impressionists. The two paintings highlighted in this lesson reflect different schools of American modernist art — SYNCHROMISM, an abstract form emphasizing dynamic movement and color, and PRECISIONISM, a more realistic style interpreting modern industrial landscapes through “precision” and ultra-clarity.

Teaching the Paintings

The manmade object—from eggbeater to bridge truss—was a favored subject of modern American artists in the 1920s, e.g., see Razor by Gerald Murphy, Skyscrapers by Charles Sheeler, Machinery by Charles Demuth, and Egg Beater #4 by Stuart Davis.

The object that dominates the two paintings in this lesson is the “aeroplane,” and dominate it does. In Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, you may need to “find” the airplane at first but, as with a visual illusion, once you see it you can’t not see it. In Aeroplane the aircraft is the painting. It captures and holds your attention; your eye can go nowhere else. You fixate on the hovering image, which will be there into infinity, it seems. What makes the paintings modernist interpretations of the Machine Age?

Consider these questions before analyzing the paintings closely.

  • On first look, what impression of the “aeroplane” do you get from each painting?
  • What do you see in each painting? What do you hear in your head? What movement do you feel?
  • Would you fly in the airplane?
  • How would you rename each painting to reflect your answers to these questions?

To continue your initial study, you might follow the four-step process in Discussing Art, developed by Dr. Joy Kasson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, 1920 | enlarge

Curtiss JN-4, the “Jenny” | enlarge
2012 photograph by Linda W. Bell

Painting #1

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, 1920
oil on canvas, 24¼ x 24 in. (61.6 x 60.8 cm)
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. Reproduced by permission.

The Painting and the Artist. The canvas is a whir of movement and color. An airplane whizzes above us shortly after takeoff, but we do not perceive it as a coherent object. Instead we’re engulfed by a dynamic array of impressions that almost startles us—the bold spinning propeller, the solid uplifting wings that break through the canvas edge, the blinding flashes of reflected sunlight, the brief glimpses of rooftops. Within the abstract blur are two more realistically portrayed objects—the open engine that shoots orange flames out the exhaust, and the helmeted pilot who seems to catch our glance. Through the immediacy of close-range flight, we are offered a fleeting yet galvanizing image of the modern. All that is solid is moving too fast to assemble in one’s sight. All is in constant flux. The modern is an ephemeral, ever-changing, and exciting reality. Above all, it is now.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright was raised in Virginia and California and pursued his art studies in Paris. In 1912 he developed with artist Morgan Russell the color-saturated abstract style they titled SYNCHROMISM. Blending color and music theory with Cubist influences, they created vivid rhythmic “chords of color” in their paintings which they called synchromies (“with color”). As Macdonald-Wright explained, synchromy “is to color what symphony is to sound,”2 i.e., a synchromist selects colors from the color wheel as a composer selects a chord structure, the “key” of a piece. As a tonic chord consists of the first, third, and fifth intervals of the tonic musical scale, for example, the “scale of red” would be composed of those intervals on the color wheel—red, yellow, and blue-green.3 With this technique, Macdonald-Wright created dazzlingly alive canvases that burst beyond their edges to envelop the viewer. View these synchromist paintings by Macdonald-Wright from 1917: Street Synchromy, and Synchromy #3. What are the core visual elements in these works? What effect is Macdonald-Wright working to achieve in the viewer?

“Stanton was a dreamer,” writes art historian Will South. “He unashamedly, unabashedly looked for transcendence in painting. He wanted to create images that would take you physically, emotionally, spiritually outside of yourself—create some other state of mind, bigger than what you would normally experience in your day-to-day life.”4 In few of his works did he explore an object as he does in Aeroplane Synchromy. Aviation held a unique interest for him, as South explains: “Aviation, a metaphor for Macdonald-Wright for an expanded consciousness, also suggests a change—from ignorance to awareness.”5 In what way does Aeroplane Synchromy portray this change? [Consult an extended overview of Macdonald-Wright’s work from Art & Antiques.]

The Airplane. The Curtiss “Jenny” (JN-4) was a single-engine open-cockpit biplane familiar to all onlookers in its day. Developed as a pilot training airplane during World War One by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, it maintained a vigorous postwar life in civil aviation (Lindbergh made his first solo flight in a Jenny). Familiarizing yourself with the Jenny will aid your interpretation of the painting; see

Questions [See comparison questions below.]

  1. What impression of the airplane do you think Macdonald-Wright intended to convey in Aeroplane Synchromy? what impression of flight in the year 1920? Cite specific aspects of the painting to support your view.
  2. How did he convey the marvel of the airplane?
  3. How did he convey the mystery of the airplane?
  4. How does Aeroplane Synchromy reflect Synchromism? How does it use color and abstraction to portray the airplane as a symbol of the modern?

Aeroplane, 1928 | enlarge

Ford Tri-Motor, the “Tin Goose” | enlarge

Painting #2

Elsie Driggs, Aeroplane, 1928
oil on canvas, 44 x 38 in. (111.8 x 96.5 cm)
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON. Reproduced by permission of Merriman Glatch (daughter of Elsie Driggs).

The Painting and the Artist. The shiny metal airplane appears suspended in air, as though frozen in flight. Only the blur of the propeller and the wirelike lines that crisscross the canvas inject a sense of movement. While technically “realistic,” the painting goes beyond mere illustration to evoke the allure and mystery of flight. With no pilot or passengers visible, with the sky and ground defined only by darkening greys at top and bottom, with the plane closely bounded on the sides and surrounded with a natural halo of light, the airplane is an artifact of modern man’s transcendence of his earthbound limits—but not an icon to be worshipped. “Oblique and puzzling,” wrote art curator Constance Kimmerle, “Aeroplane exudes a sense of haunting loneliness while suggesting the eeriness of a dreamlike experience.”6 Here the modern is a concrete reality that we recognize and admire, yet the future it heads toward is undefined and beyond the canvas. Above all, it is entrancing.

Raised in the industrial Pittsburgh area, Elsie Driggs was a member of the PRECISIONIST art movement that came to define American modernism. Claiming the machine age as their realm, the Precisionists created streamlined (“precise”) depictions of urban and industrial settings with boldly defined geometric shapes, commanding lines, unambiguous light and dark contrast, little detail, no texture, and rarely a human being. Driggs painted Aeroplane shortly after she experienced her first plane flight in a Ford Tri-Motor, the “Tin Goose.” “I took a plane for the first time in my life,” she later related. “ . . . I loved the flying. That was a new sensation . . . the captain sent back a message, ‘Would I like to sit with him for awhile? . . . and I can tell you, you do get a wonderful feeling of flying right out on the nose of one of those planes.”7 How does Aeroplane convey the wonder of flying in a precisionist mode? Compare Aeroplane with Driggs’s 1927 precisionist paintings Pittsburgh and Queensborough Bridge (scroll down).

The Airplane. Nicknamed the “Tin Goose,” the Ford Tri-Motor (three engine) with its corrugated aluminum body was one of the first all-metal airplanes. Produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1925 to 1933, it carried a crew of three and up to nine or ten passengers. Familiarizing yourself with the “Tin Goose” will aid your interpretation of the painting; see

  • a photograph of the Ford Tri-Motor “Tin Goose” (2004)    TREKEARTH
  • a Ford Tri-Motor on exhibit (enlarge photo)    NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM
  • videos of a Ford Tri-Motor (2007): Part One: pilot walk-around and interior tour; Part Two: takeoff, flight, and landing    CHUCK DERER / YOUTUBE

Questions [See comparison questions below.]

  1. What impression of the airplane do you think Driggs intended to convey in Aeroplane? What impression of flight in the year 1928?
  2. How did she convey the marvel of the airplane?
  3. How did she convey the mystery of the airplane?
  4. How does Aeroplane reflect Precisionism? How does it use simplicity and clarity to portray the airplane as a symbol of the modern?

Comparison Questions

  1. Both artists depict a single airplane as the dominant image in their paintings. How do they differ in presenting the airplane as a symbol of modernity, human daring, and the unknown future?
  2. How can images as abstract as Macdonald-Wright’s and as realistic as Driggs’s both reflect modernism?
  3. Why might the artists have used the word Aeroplane instead of Airplane?
  4. Both artists depict an airplane in the moment. Why might Macdonald-Wright have emphasized movement through air while Driggs emphasized stillness in air?
  5. Both airplanes are truncated in the paintings, i.e., they are cut off and not depicted in their entirety. Why might the artists have done this?
  6. What “role” does the pilot play in each painting?
  7. What “role” does the airplane play in each?
  8. How does the surrounding environment support these roles?
  9. How does each painting convey awe? In each, how are we to respond to our awe?
  10. If each painting were a frame in a video, what would one see in the next ten frames?
  11. If you placed the two paintings side-by-side in a museum exhibition, what might you title the pairing?
  12. The paintings are shown below in proportional size; Aeroplane is approximately three times bigger in area than Aeroplane Synchromy. How does the size of a painting influence the viewer’s response?
    [At 3.67 x 3.2 feet, Aeroplane is approximately 12 square feet in area. At 2.04 x 2 ft., Aeroplane Synchromy is approximately four square feet in area.]

  13. What machine or object might be similarly depicted to capture the spirit of today?
  14. How did Synchromism and Precisionism reflect American modernists’ aspirations to define the modern?
  15. What different options do abstraction and realism offer an artist for interpreting modernity?
  16. Judging from your analysis of these paintings, how were the marvel and mystery of aviation interpreted by American modernist painters in the 1920s?
Airplane, 1931

Follow-Up Assignment

Howard Norton Cook, Airplane, 1931
wood engraving on paper, 11 5/8 x 8 7/8 in. (29.5 x 22.7 cm)
SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM. Permission request in process.

By 1931 the exuberance of the 1920s had ended in the Great Depression. Have students compare the two Aeroplane paintings with this woodcut from 1931 and write an essay or create a Power Point presentation in response to this question: How does Cook interpret the airplane and the modern in the new circumstances of the 1930s?

In Airplane, Cook depicts a biplane flying over the countryside sculpted with roads and well-tended farms. But we are not sharing a sunny afternoon flight with an amateur pilot. We are hovering above an unmarked airplane with a featureless pilot, flying over stylized farmland with no human presence. We run ahead of the shadows toward the sunset . . . and what is that ahead? A gaping abyss? Does its edge suggest sneering lips? How do the roads become a foreboding fence, delineating the darkness? Or wait, is our imagination getting ahead of us?

A Massachusetts native, Howard Cook studied printmaking in New York City and throughout the 1920s created woodblock prints for national magazines including the Forum, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. His work became increasingly abstract in the 1930s and 1940s, a transition that may be evident in Airplane. Study the zoomable image; be sure to zoom in close to study the airplane, pilot, farm landscape, country roads, the “fence,” and the upper right corner that is starkly separated from the storybook farmland by the illuminated airplane. How might you retitle the work to convey its tone? As you proceed, you might consult overviews of Cook’s work from The Old Print Shop.

1. Brooklyn Museum of Art, press release for exhibition The Machine Age in America: 1918-1941, Summer 1986, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York.
2. So Why Is This Art? Nine Questions about the Nature of Art (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2004), at
3. Henry Adams, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollack (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), in Part Three: The Formula (unnumbered pages), citing original research by curator Will South.
4. “Stanton Macdonald-Wright: Discover the Man and His Art,” interview with curator Will South, Carolina Arts, March 2001, at
5. Will South, “Macdonald-Wright in California,” ch. four of Color, Myth, and Magic: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism, ed. Will South (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2001), p. 72.
6. Constance Kimmerle, et al., Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical (James A. Michener Art Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), p. 35.
7. Ibid., p. 34, citing audiotaped and transcribed interview with Elsie Driggs by Francine Tyler, Oct. 30-Dec. 5, 1985, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

– Linda M. Bell, photograph of a Curtiss JN-4H “Jenny” in an airshow, Flabob Flying Circus, Riverside, California, Sept. 29, 2012. Reproduced by permission of Linda M. Bell.
– Howard Cook, Airplane, wood engraving on paper, 1931. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Barbara Latham, 1980.122.123. Permission request in process.
– Elsie Driggs, Aeroplane, oil on canvas, 1928. Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Reproduced by permission of Merriman Glatch.
– Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Aeroplane Synchromy in Yellow-Orange, oil on canvas, 1920. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949, accession no. 49.70.52. Reproduced by permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
– Photograph of a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor “Tin Goose” in flight, ca. 2012; airplane restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, Oshkosh, Wisconsin; photographer unidentified. Permission request in process.