Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) was born in Richmond, Virginia and was an eighth-generation Virginian. He attended North Carolina State College in 1922-1923 before studying design at the Maryland Institute in 1925-1926. He then studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1926 to 1930. In Philadelphia and during his summer's travel to Europe on Cresson Scholarships in 1929 and 1930, Gwathmey began to develop more liberal attitudes towards African Americans. This was furthered when Gwathmey met African Americans as equals on the Philadelphia WPA/FAP project and through the Artists Union. The poverty and oppression of the rural black poor informed the social content of Gwathmey's paintings and screen prints from 1929 to 1988. During the Depression, Gwathmey would often hitchhike to Richmond from Philadelphia and this experience highlighted the great social divide between the affluent and the unemployed. From 1939 to 1941, Gwathmey painted the mural The Countryside for the Eutaw, Alabama Post Office. Gwathmey received this commission after winning the state of Alabama in the Treasury Department's 48 States competition of 1939, which included a national tour of the winning mural proposals. He also spent three months in 1944 working with sharecroppers on a tobacco farm in North Carolina funded by a Rosenwald Fellowship.
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In 1941, Herman Baron's ACA Galleries in New York became Robert Gwathmey's life-long dealer. ACA gave Gwathmey solo exhibitions in 1941 and 1946. From 1938-1942, Gwathmey taught drawing and painting at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. From 1942-1968, Gwathmey was the drawing instructor at the Cooper Union. From 1960-1970 he was the visiting professor of painting at Boston University. All during these years teaching, Robert Gwathmey was invited to send his paintings to major museum invitational exhibitions, including: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1929, 1930, 1934, 1942-53, 1958-66; Whitney Museum of American Art, 1939-67; Art Institute of Chicago, 1941-45; Carnegie Institute, 1941, 1943-1945; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1942, 1944; Corcoran Gallery, 1945-1959. Gwathmey also exhibited in 1939 at the New York World's Fair and the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco.
William Gropper (1897-1977) was a Social Realist whose career as an artist started in 1920 with cartoons for The New York Tribune. He began to paint seriously, but privately, sometime in 1921. Gropper was unknown as a painter until his first gallery exhibition in 1936 at Dinghy Gallery in Greenwich Village. The next year two one-man shows of Gropper's work were held at Herman Baron's ACA Galleries, the artist's life-long New York dealer.
In 1937, Gropper was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which the artist used to tour the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle- an area devastated by many years of draught. Gropper made many sketches and paintings on this trip. One titled Gipsy Labor was published in The Nation, September 25, 1937. It is a precursor to Vegetable Pickers of 1946.
In the 1940s, Gropper traveled through the South and resulting oil paintings from the trip include: The Same Old South, 1941; Picking Cotton, 1942; Southern Landscape, 1945; Klan of the South, 1946. The drawing Vegetable Pickers, 1946, appears to be a study for an oil of this period, Scarecrow, where the field workers are picking cotton rather than vegetables. Another related painting is Cotton Pickers (also known as Field Workers), 1942. In such figure compositions, Gropper has kept backgrounds as suggestions of location, aiming at a quick read of his narrative which concentrates on the people. A superb draughtsman, William Gropper's paintings and drawings are carefully ordered with the most important elements- usually the people- providing the dramatic power, vitality and narrative of the work.
Vegetable Pickers, 1946, was exhibited in the 1971 exhibition William Gropper: Fifty Years of Drawing 1921-1971 at ACA Galleries in New York and illustrated in the exhibition catalogue (figure 45). The exhibition traveled to the Canton Art Institute, Ohio, February- March 1972; the Tyler Museum of Art, Texas, May- June 1972; and the Griffith Art Center, St. Lawrence University, New York, October- November 1972. The related oil painting titled Scarecrow appears on page 82 of Louis Lozowick's 1983 William Gropper book, published by Associated University Presses.
Born in Poland, Abram Tromka (1896-1954) at an early age moved with his family to the Henry Street Settlement, located in the Lower East Side of New York City. This housing was founded in 1895 by Lillian D. Wald, a nurse, who discovered the squalid conditions the poor were living in while designing a home nursing course for her school. She was determined to help the poor and newly arrived immigrants and to live among them, providing a variety of volunteer services. Tromka and his family were lucky to find placement within the housing settlement and to meet Wald who quickly noticed Tromka's artistic abilities. In 1915 Wald asked the 19 year old Tromka to illustrate her book on her life's work, House on Henry Street.
While at the Henry Street Settlement, Tromka received lessons in etching by Nora Hamilton, and later became a student and protégé of Robert Henri and George Bellows, his only other teachers. Tromka was part of the Works Progress Administration throughout its duration and believed it was the happiest creative period of his life. Tromka's lifetime dealer was ACA Galleries in New York, where he had thirteen solo exhibitions from 1933 to 1961. Fellow ACA artist Philip Evergood wrote the foreword for Tromka's memorial exhibition at ACA in 1961.
The Syracuse University Library holds Tromka's papers, which include a journal of Tromka's trip through the South in 1940. On that trip he traveled to Virginia, Georgia, and New Orleans. In his journal, Tromka mentioned an earlier trip to Harlan County in Kentucky. In addition to Old Kentucky, 1938, Abram Tromka created a print titled Kentucky Minstrel in 1945.
Tromka died in Queens, New York in 1954. Fortunately before he died, Tromka saw his work begin to reappear at exhibitions which included the State Museum, Trenton, New Jersey, 1951; the Newark Museum, New Jersey, 1951; and the Wichita Art Museum, 1952. Abram Tromka was rediscovered by New York dealers in 1977 in a Parsons School of Design exhibition titled New York City WPA Art.