In 1882, the Central Labor Union in New York City honored the achievements of the American worker by observing the first Labor Day with speeches, fireworks, and a massive parade. But since then, the holiday intended to celebrate those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,” has come to be more closely associated with last-minute beach vacations and retail sales than with workers’ solidarity.
The Blanton’s permanent collection contains over 100 works on paper that depict workers from around the world, and several of them are currently on view in Luminous: 50 Years of Collecting Prints and Drawings at the Blanton. The images highlighted below offer us all an opportunity to meditate, if only for a moment, on the contributions of laborers throughout history, from the blacksmith of 18th-century England to the anonymous factory worker today.
In Richard Earlom’s An Iron Forge, a mezzotint reproduction of a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, an iron-founder proudly surveys his workshop, as his wife and children shield themselves from the heat of the furnace. An assistant, with his back to the viewer, readies a white-hot bar of iron for hammering.
Printed (and painted) during the onset of the Industrial Revolution, this image is a testament to the way modern machinery—in this case, the water-powered hammer—was transforming life for middle-class workers. But beyond that, scholars have argued, what truly distinguishes Wright’s scene as a product of its time is the dignity that it lends to the workmen, who are bathed in the glow of the material that is their livelihood. Earlom skillfully roughened and polished a metal plate to capture the tonal complexity of the original.
American artist Kenneth Adams cast the workingman in a similar role in his circa 1939 lithograph The Miner. Based in Taos, New Mexico during the Great Depression, Adams made a living first through commissions from the Public Works of Art Project and later through the sale of his prints. Known for his compassion toward the indigenous and Latino communities of Taos, the artist also made a number of intimate portraits of local laborers.
Here a miner is immersed in a rock wall and readying his pickaxe for the next swing. The subject’s position relative to the viewer echoes the form of Wright’s foundry worker—both anonymous laborers, engrossed in their craft and undeterred by the dangerous conditions that surround them. However, here the miner is very much the protagonist, his monumentality only amplified by Adams’ close cropping. The figure’s angular musculature echoes the rock wall that encircles him, indicating a profound connection between man and landscape. Adams was no doubt influenced by the planar fragmentation of Cubism and the social realist style of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, whose work is also on view inLuminous.
Oscar Muñoz’s untitled chalk drawing offers a subtler message than the heroic portraits of working-class men above. In this work, a slightly unkempt middle-aged woman sits alone in a sparsely decorated dormitory, staring at nothing in particular, as light from a single window filters in. A treadle sewing machine sits rather dauntingly before her and is the only indication of her occupation as a seamstress. What circumstances led the woman to this lonely urban existence, and what were her alternatives? Muñoz encourages us to consider the invisible workers who manufacture our material goods, a proposition that is just as relevant in today’s globalized economy as it was in Colombia in 1977, when the drawing was made.
Visit the Blanton to view these and other works depicting labor by artists including Eugène Delacroix, John T. Biggers, José Clemente Orozco, Clare Leighton, and Rockwell Kent. Luminousis on view until Sept. 15.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Administrative Manager for Education. She holds an M.A. in Art History from George Mason University, where she specialized in 20th-century Latin America.