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.

Richard Earlom’s An Iron Forge

Richard Earlom’s An Iron Forge

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.

The Miner by Kenneth Adams

The Miner by Kenneth Adams

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.

Untitled chalk drawing by Oscar Muñoz

Untitled chalk drawing by Oscar Muñoz

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.

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  1. The following poem about the first image in this blog post was originally written for the Blanton Poetry Project and published in Spoon River Poetry Review 35.2 (2010): 22-24.SUBTRACTIVE NATIVITY[Richard Earlom’s mezzotint An Iron Forge, after Joseph Wright of Derby (1773)]has outh’ hêlios prosderketaiaktisin outh’ hê nukteros mênê poteon whom the sun never beams downnor ever the nightly moon —Aeschylus, Prometheus BoundNo less than the man in the middle, hunchedas if ready to lift his flash and, from muchtoo close and from roughly a century early,capture the family on film—no lesssecurely than this smith grips his tongs,the sisters hold their pose, looking forwardto futures they think they see in Wright’s eyesas he lays it on thick—bright ingot on anvilas the Infant once lay in a manger of straw—then strokes the glow of industrial promisearound. Their father crosses his forearmsthe better to show off his muscles at rest.A river labors to turn the great wheelthat will lift with its cam the belly-helved hammerabove the cam’s catch. Caught at the momentbefore the gravity of it all slams down,the sisters appeal to the painter’s gaze. But back in the painter’s shadow, graver artis at hand, scraping out of what would bea plenary carbon darkness zonesablaze with virgin negation and, shallower,crepuscular, corpuscular, alivealmost with swarming-seeming myriads,the burnished forms our unexacting sightgrays-in in infernal gradients of shades:glimmers of skin stretched taut at a shoulderand of the loosely fitting fabrics’ folds,the molten iron oblong prodigally shedding its grace, halo-yellow gone white, as the paper that is their fire burns out.The river is silent, silent is the night’s great wheeling of star-punctuated black,and both unseen as is the course of time.We recognize time’s spoor, however. I likeAn Iron Forge, after Joseph Wright of Derbymore than I like An Iron Forge itself,and yet, what that after stands for spooks meno less than the vaguely zombiesque wayeach white of the adolescent’s eyes eclipsesin part, in this impression, its irisas if, could she open her lips and be heardover the axle’s screech, the volcaniccataclysm of the hammer’s impact,we’d hear her What would you have us do?as the little one there to her right, so sunnyof aspect, held up snugly by her mom,could she lengthen her depth of field to discernwhatever passes in our macular far-off faces for chagrin, would witness, no lessthan the ancient Gray-Ones who share but one eye,the birth of the halftone, the pixel, the bit.

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