Strange Worlds: the immigrant experience in the early 20th century


Todros Geller, Strange Worlds, 1928, oil on canvas, 71.8 x 66.4 cm (Art Institute of Chicago), a Seeing America videoSpeakers: Sarah Alvarez, Director of School Programs, Department of Learning and Engagement, The Art Institute of Chicago and Steven Zucker


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Key points

  • The early 20th century was a period of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the United States.
  • Strange Worlds draws on modern European painting by fragmenting forms to suggest the immigrant struggle to adapt to life in the United States.
  • Anti-immigration sentiment and nativism arose in the U.S. during the early 20th century, strengthening groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and prompting laws such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.
  • Todros Geller represents aspects of his own experiences as an Eastern European Jew who immigrated to the U.S., but also represents the more general struggle to retain cultural identity in America.

Go Deeper

Learn more about this painting at the Art Institute of Chicago

Learn more about how 20th-century immigration policy restricted access to immigrants from certain nations

How did migration and immigration impact life and politics in American cities?

How did the Great Migration change life in northern cities such as Chicago?

Who was Todros Geller and how did his background influence this painting?


More to think about

Like the early 20th century, immigration to the U.S. has resulted in divisive public rhetoric and political unrest today. How do the issues raised in contemporary discussions around immigration compare to the historical conditions seen in Geller’s painting?


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Cite this page as: Sarah Alvarez and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Strange Worlds: the immigrant experience in the early 20th century," in Smarthistory, February 5, 2018, accessed August 15, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/geller-strange-worlds-2/.