People Are My Landscape: Social Struggle in the Art of William Gropper

Introduction, Exhibition Catalogs, Peer Honors

The Artist and His Media, Cartoons, and Murals, Paintings and Prints

Magazine Illustrations

Book and Pamphlet Illustration, Caricatures

Sketches and Lithographs


The Shtetl


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:

I don't like labels. I am interested in mankind. People create the "landscape" in my paintings. I fight wrongs. I fight in a creative sense. I am not fighting myself and I have no emotional conflicts. All my stuff is myself, passionately myself. I am involved with ideas and concepts. I am not trying to indoctrinate, I am trying to express my thoughts (Louise Elliot Rago, "Why People Create: Evening with William Gropper," School Arts 60 [December 1960]: 33-34).


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.

8.[League of Nations], New York Tribune, 2 February 1919.

9. "A Beautiful Snow," Daily Worker, 30 December 1933.

10. [Dressmakers Strike], Morning Freiheit, n.d.

11. "Taking the News at Face Value," World, 1 August 1926.

12. [Free Speech], New Masses, n.d.


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.

13. Gropper's "Sketch for Interior Department Mural," Magazine of Art (American Federation of Arts) 30, no. 8 (August 1937): cover.

14. "Mural Depicts Dam Work," Washington Post, 18 February 1939.

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 The Shtetl.

15. William Gropper's America: Its Folklore, c1946. This is from a digital image reproduced from the Illinois State Library online catalog.

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 and Art.

Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Library
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