A Hard Day’s Work

Hard Day’s Work
Wikimedia Commons

Hoping to visit a friend this weekend, I was foiled because she didn’t have Labor Day free. Ironically enough, she had to work. As she put it, “The real laborers never get a holiday!"

Perhaps that explains why depictions of workingmen and women are so prevalent in art.

The artist that springs first to mind is Thomas Hart Benton. Of the Regionalist school, Benton defied the wave of modernism that crashed into this country during the 1920s by devoting much of his work to depictions of rural America: the toiling farmer and small-town life. Not a glamorized look at the heartland, the painting Plowing It Under shows a weary farmhand hoeing a row in the blazing sun.

A more acerbic view of American output comes in the form of Benton’s Indiana murals. Showing the industry of the nation—a metal worker tending a forge; a nurse at the side of an ailing child—the murals were also controversial because of the inclusion of a figure dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

The French artist Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners is a stirring, though somewhat sappy, painting of peasants in the field. His compatriot, Gustave Courbet, also produced several paintings of rural laborers.

Diego Rivera was inspired by the ancient laborers of Mexico, but also depicted stylized paintings of flower carriers. Add to that his Detroit murals, which visualize the industrial backbone of that city as it was in the 1930s.

Photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Lewis Hine are almost synonymous with this kind of subject matter.

Others we should throw into the mix?

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