The Artist and His Media
In his teenage years, Gropper attended the Ferrer Modern School in New York City, an avant-garde school promoted by anarchist Emma Goldman and directed at the time by Will Durant. Gropper studied there under the prominent artists George Bellows and Robert Henri, who along with William J. Glackens, John Sloan, and others, founded the Ashcan school of art, which sought to express urban life and industrialism realistically. The 1913 Armory Show in New York City, planned and organized in part by this group, helped to introduce modern art to America and provided Gropper with a new vision. After attending the National Academy of Design briefly, he was offered a scholarship to attend the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now the Parsons School of Design).
The artistic skills that Gropper developed proved versatile
and enabled him to work in a variety of media, formats, and scales, including
cartoon drawings, magazine and book illustrations, lithographs, paintings,
and murals. While Gropper is most closely associated with the artistic
movement known as social realism, he himself eschewed labels:
Following his graduation from the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts in 1917, Gropper was hired by the conservative New York Tribune to create cartoons and illustrations to accompany human-interest stories. He was fired from the paper, however, when the editors learned that he was also drawing for the Rebel Worker, the newspaper of the Socialist-affiliated Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In the 1920s, Gropper began a two-decade tenure as a staff
cartoonist for the Morning Freiheit, a Yiddish newspaper. In addition
to contributing his work to the Freiheit and other left-wing periodicals
such as the Daily Worker and the World, Gropper helped to
found New Masses, which became another important vehicle for his
work and message.
In the 1930s, Gropper completed murals for the Schenley Corporation and the Hotel Taft in New York City. Like many artists of the era who found it difficult to find work, he obtained commissions funded by the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) for a variety of projects including murals for post offices in Freeport, Long Island, and Detroit. In 1937, he won a national design competition to create a mural for the new U.S. Department of the Interior building as a part of the U.S. Treasury Art Project. Construction of a Dam was completed in 1939 as a tribute to technology and teamwork. It consisted of three panels inspired by the building of the Grand Coulee (Columbia River) and Davis (Colorado River) dams.
Paintings and Prints
Gropper was fascinated with American folklore, and figures such as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and Daniel Boone became subjects for his art. In 1946, his painting of a map entitled William Gropper's America: Its Folklore was published and distributed worldwide through the U.S. State Department. Senator Joseph McCarthy, chair of the Committee on Government Operations, believed the map was inspired by Communist ideas and consequently subpoenaed Gropper to appear before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in May 1953. Invoking the Fifth Amendment, Gropper refused to answer any questions and was subsequently blacklisted.
Although daunted by the opposition to his work that followed the investigative hearings, Gropper drew inspiration from Francisco de Goya's Los Caprichos, a series of satirical etchings that depict the political and social turmoil in Spain at the end of the eighteenth century. Gropper sought and found the financial support from sympathetic individuals to complete his own series of lithographs that he called The Capriccios and in which he expressed his disdain for the American ideological culture of the 1950s.
Despite receiving substantially fewer public and private
commissions and offers to exhibit his work during the McCarthy era, Gropper
continued to paint. As the times changed, he was able to show his work
once again across the United States and abroad. In 1970, he published
a series of striking color lithographs of Jewish village life entitled
16. William Gropper, Mike Fink [Mississippi River
keelboatman], n.d. Color lithograph signed in pencil, 14 x 9 inches. This
was purchased with the Peter Graham Fund for Radicalism in Literature
Syracuse University Library
Syracuse, NY 13244
Last modified: June 09, 2012 12:35 PM
URL: http://libwww.syr.edu /digital/exhibits/g/Gropper/case2.htm