During the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Gwathmey and other Social Realist painters such as Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, and Jacob Lawrence, as well as photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, depicted the lives of the destitute and the dispossessed in America with implicit criticism of the...
During the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Gwathmey and other Social Realist painters such as Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, and Jacob Lawrence, as well as photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, depicted the lives of the destitute and the dispossessed in America with implicit criticism of the political and economic forces that maintained inequities in wealth and power. Gwathmey, in his paintings, protested the living conditions of poor African American families in the South. Born to a white family that had lived in Virginia for eight generations, Gwathmey spent most of his adult life in the North. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1926 to 1930 and taught at Cooper Union in New York for twenty-six years. It was not until he returned to the South after his first year at the Pennsylvania Academy that he saw how hard life was for the Southern black. His paintings are filled with the unending toil of black men and women and often contain barbed wire, lynching ropes, and other symbols of oppression. When the MFA purchased Sharecropper and Blackberry Pickers in 1941, it was one of the first of Gwathmey's works to enter a major museum's collection. In a letter to the Museum's curator of paintings, Gwathmey, who was then teaching at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, wrote, "I have long been interested in our local scene and always return to my native heath with the coming of summer. The plight of the sharecropper, the evils of the usual one crop farming, with its contingent poverty, and the worn earth have all too long been smothered by a traditional romanticism." Gwathmey's painting rejects such romanticism; his bold designs and simplified forms convey a powerful image of hardship and toil. Gwathmey was well versed in European art, having won Cresson Fellowships for European travel in 1929 and 1930. Like the French painter Georges Rouault, Gwathmey developed a modern style based on compartmentalized areas of lush color enclosed by angular black lines, resembling the medieval stained glass he had seen in Europe's great cathedrals. He often used the same figure in more than one composition, and an oil painting entitled Hoeing (Carnegie Museum of Art) also depicts the figure of the black man wiping sweat from his brow. Gwathmey explained in a 1963 letter: "I make 'working drawings' and then paint from there. When I try to paint directly from the object I'm utterly bound. It being once removed allows me the area of adjustment I need." This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.
Lower right: Gwathmey
The artist; with A.C.A. Gallery, New York, 1941; to MFA, 1941, purchased for $250.
The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund
© VAGA, New York, NY