Cell-matrix adhesions regulate cell morphology, intracellular signaling, gene expression, and phenotype. Understanding how different methods of attaching matrix proteins to substrates affect the molecular arrangement of these adhesions offers the possibility of controlling cell function and architecture. The goal of this study was to visualize and quantify the cell-matrix adhesions formed by human fibroblasts on the matrix protein fibronectin covalently attached to poly(vinyl) alcohol (PVA) hydrogels. These adhesions were then compared with the cell adhesions formed in routine cell culture on fibronectin noncovalently coated onto glass coverslips or those formed on fibronectin covalently immobilized onto glass coverslips. Cell adhesions were characterized by immunofluorescence confocal microscopy utilizing paxillin as a marker for focal adhesions and alpha(5) integrin as a marker for fibrillar adhesions. As expected, distinct focal and fibrillar adhesions were observed in routine cell culture on coverslips coated noncovalently with fibronectin. Cells cultured on fibronectin covalently linked to PVA demonstrated diminished spatial separation of paxillin and alpha(5) integrin, accompanied by a reduction in fibrillar adhesions and fibronectin fibrillogenesis. Cells on fibronectin covalently immobilized on glass displayed the strongest marker colocalization and the most complete loss of fibrillar adhesions and lack of fibrillogenesis. These results indicate that fibronectin-conjugated PVA promotes the formation of cell adhesion structures intermediate in composition between those formed on noncovalently attached and covalently immobilized fibronectin. Furthermore, they imply that bioactive polymers can selectively induce specific cell-matrix adhesions, a characteristic that may have consequences in various tissue-engineering applications.