Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 11, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Mr. Jeffrey Landau of Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA. The essay was published accompanying the exhibition A Nation's Conscience: Paintings by William Gropper. The exhibition, which premiered at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in 1997, and recently toured to the Chicago Public Library's Harold Washington Library Center in 2001, was curated by Charlotte Sherman and Benjamin Horowitz of The Heritage Gallery, Los Angeles. Selected images were reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Landau Traveling Exhibitions at
by Charlotte Sherman and Benjamin Horowitz, September 1997
William Gropper was born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1897 to parents who worked for small wages in sweatshops. Although his Father was a scholarly man with knowledge of eight languages, he had limited work opportunity. His mother was a seamstress, a subject that he painted over and over again. At fourteen Bill Gropper left school and began working 72 hours a week, for $5.00, with no overtime pay. It is this beginning in the proletarian work that gave Gropper his keen social consciousness and his great concern for the downtrodden and the victims of injustice. His best-known subject matter is the biting caricature of America's wealthy and powerful, of politicians, moguls of business and industry. Ironically it was these wealthy collectors who sought these images for their collections.
Much of Gropper's artistic philosophy can be understood when one considers the influence of Robert Henri and George Bellows with whom he studied. In this atmosphere, artists were encouraged to develop their personal belief in the nature of art. They insisted that each artist must be himself/herself; a human being, living and working in the real world. Gropper has said, "Right then, I began to realize that you don't paint with color-you paint with conviction, freedom, love and heart-aches, with what you have." (left: Illinois Senator, 1949, 20 x 29 inches, oil on canvas)
Throughout his life, he continued to study the masters including Rembrandt, El Greco, Breughel, Bosch and Grunewald and more recent masters such as Daumier, Goya, Gericault and Cezanne. Cropper's painting of folklore and American landscapes have often been compared with the regionalists. When Gropper approached the American myth as subject, it was often with his biting humor as well as pride. The last major influence on Cropper was Cubism, the Force that permeated so much of 20th century painting. Cropper frequently introduced a series of angular shapes into his compositions.
There is little doubt that Bill Gropper has achieved an important place in the annals of American Art. Over the course of fifty years, he had concentrated on people. People were depicted picketing the work in sweatshops, picking crops, the mighty in the fullness of their power, and the oppressed. Frequently he turned to themes of Jewish village life in Eastern Europe. Throughout, however, his work has been much more than the mere rendering of subject matter. He has continuously shown a perfection of painterly composition. (left: Uncle, 1940, 30 x 40 inches, oil on canvas)
"Gropper has a dynamic feeling for forms and their spatial relationships. Yet movement is not merely the subject of Gropper's paintings: it exists in his handling of the masses, a quiet landscape, or in a somber scene of destruction. His artist's eye supplants the literal fact so that even when it comes closest to the raw details of social catastrophe, the resultant visual experience is stilt, above all, on the format of aesthetic relationships." (Freundlich, August I., William Gropper: Retrospective, The Ward Ritchie Press: Los Angeles in conjunction with the Joe and Emily Art Gallery, University of Miami,1968.)
To quote Gropper, "I react to life and its stimulant to me. It could be a phrase; it could be an attitude; it could be a mood. It's broad, I'm open for any little thing, but I am of a period. I come from a sort of humanistic element. I love people, and when I draw or paint, it comes out of people, and the landscape is what these people make it."
Ed. note: William Gropper died in 1977.
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