1897–1977

Gropper, William

Artists

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William Gropper was a painter and political cartoonist who is best remembered for his striking social commentary. He was born in 1897 on the Lower East Side in New York City to a large, poor immigrant family. Due to the family’s financial difficulties, Gropper was forced to leave school at a very young age and work in a garment sweatshop with his mother and siblings. Several years later, he enrolled in art classes at the socially progressive Ferrer School where he received instruction from noted Ashcan artists Robert Henri and George Bellows. Gropper later recalled the influence of these men saying, "Right then, I began to realize that you don't paint with color—you paint with conviction, freedom, love and heartaches, with what you have."

Following his time at the Ferrer School, Gropper continued his education at the Chase School, later known as Parson’s School of Design. After graduation, Gropper briefly illustrated for the New York Tribune, during which time he began contributing to socialist publications, such as The New Masses, Labor Defender and The Nation. In 1924, he began a long career as a regular cartoonist for the Freiheit, a left-wing Yiddish daily newspaper. 

As his career progressed in the 1930s, Gropper turned his attention more towards painting. In addition to the early influence of Henri and Bellows, he also looked to Cubism for inspiration and incorporated sharp angles and exaggerated figures in his paintings. In the 1930s and 1940s, Gropper completed several murals for New York businesses, and for post offices in Detroit and on Long Island. In 1937, Gropper was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship which he used to travel to the Great Plains and to the Southeast. In 1942, he painted Field Workers, based on sketches made while in the South. It was completed during the height of his career as a painter and the saturated coloring and exaggerated angles are characteristic of his mature painting style.

Though Gropper worked in different mediums, his subject was always people and he is often referred to as "the workingman's protector." In an interview, Gropper explained his motivations for exposing the wrongs committed against workers, "That's my heritage. I'm from the old school, defending the underdog. Maybe because I've been an underdog or still am. I put myself in their position. I feel for the people . . . I become involved."

 

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