In "O Brother Where Art Thou?," set in rural Mississippi of the 1930s, Joel and Ethan Coen build upon Southern mythology, traditions and culture for their movie. But American artists of the 1930s and 1940s themselves created images based upon the history, landscape, and people of the American South. These painters focused on many of the Southern themes central to the Coen's development of those same ideas in "O Brother": poverty, the chain gang, the blues, floods, baptisms, lynching and many others.
Today, the term “Regionalist” or “American scene” painter includes artists “loyal” to their respective regions, including the South. These painters studied art in the major metropolitan areas of the United States, typically New York City or Chicago, or went abroad, most often to Paris, and then returned to their “homes.” Artists active in the Midwest (most famously, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton), the Northeast and the South inclined toward strong identification with their home locales. The South also held particular interest for "traveling" artists from other regions or on projects from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
Regionalism is strongly associated with the ideals of the New Deal and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Artists like Benton, Wood and John Steuart Curry became nationally-known through their images of rural, local culture and its traditional values ... concerns now commonly associated with the Regionalist movement. The backing of powerful art critics like Peyton Boswell Jr. and Thomas Craven, the interest of magazines like Time, Life and The Art Digest and the support of federal art programs aided the success of regionalist painters during the era. Seen in retrospect, regionalist painters emerged in all sections of the country, painted a broad range of subjects and used a wide range of aesthetic styles. Hence, regionalism refers to an art, created in the era of the Great Depression, which imparts personal responses to a given region, yet transcends regional boundaries to comment on the nation as a whole.
The postbellum South, still largely agricultural (with cotton as its major crop), was beset by poverty and poor health conditions in rural areas. These issues were then simply magnified by the Great Depression. Segments of the South's culture and its communities became prime subjects for social documentation and artistic expression. Many artists also confronted the random and wanton lynching of blacks - the subject of an "O Brother" scene - via shocking paintings and prints.
The 1930s artists fashioned politically-charged images designed to protest against the unlawful activity. The Coens, using the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz, instead poke fun at the racists:
Homer Stokes: [as Grand Kleagle at a KKK rally] And our women, let's not forget those ladies, y'all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys!
Meanwhile, baptism and flood imagery were related for artists of the Great Depression, and the Coens touch on the same motifs as well in "O Brother":
Pete: The Preacher said it absolved us.
Ulysses Everett McGill: For him, not for the law. I'm surprised at you, Pete, I gave you credit for more brains than Delmar.
Delmar O'Donnell: But they was witnesses that seen us redeemed.
Ulysses Everett McGill: That's not the issue Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed.
The theme of maintaining faith despite seemingly insurmountable odds serves as an underpinning for images about floods - with all their biblical and classical associations - during the 1930s. For the Coens in "O Brother," as for these 1930s painters of the rural Midwest and South, water operates as a symbol of cataclysmic change and redemption. Self-taught (folk) artists, like Clementine Hunter, continued the Southern interest in baptismal images and the importance of religion via their mid-to-late 20th century images.