Synopses & Reviews
Every work of art has a story behind it. In 1886 the German American artist Robert Koehler painted a dramatic wide-angle depiction of an imagined confrontation between factory workers and their employer. He called this oil painting The Strike. It has had a long and tumultuous international history as a symbol of class struggle and the cause of workers’ rights. First exhibited just days before the tragic Chicago Haymarket riot, The Strike became an inspiration for the labor movement. In the midst of the campaign for an eight-hour workday, it gained international attention at expositions in Paris, Munich, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Though the painting fell into obscurity for decades in the early twentieth century, The Strike lived on in wood-engraved reproductions in labor publications. Its purchase, restoration, and exhibition by New Left activist Lee Baxandall in the early 1970s launched it to international fame once more, and collectors and galleries around the world scrambled to acquire it. It is now housed in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, Germany. Art historian James M. Dennis has crafted a compelling “biography” of Koehler’s painting: its exhibitions, acclaim, neglect, and rediscovery. He introduces its German-born creator and politically diverse audiences and traces the painting’s acceptance and rejection through the years, exploring how class and sociopolitical movements affected its reception. Dennis considers the significance of key figures in the painting, such as the woman asserting her presence in the center of action. He compellingly explains why The Strike has earned its identity as the iconic painting of the industrial labor movement.
Famous for iconic images of the rural Midwest—such as American Gothic, Politics in Missouri, and Baptism in Kansas—Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry have long been lumped together under the rubric the "Regionalists." James M. Dennis offers a fresh and sophisticated look at the modernist tendencies of this trio of American painters, arguing that the individual styles of Wood, Benton, and Curry were both mislabeled and misunderstood. Revisiting the artistic and political culture of America between the World Wars, he shows that critics and ideologues—from Time Magazine to the Partisan Review—pigeonholed, praised, or pilloried the Regionalists to serve their own critical intentions.
An art “biography” that traces the tumultuous international history of Robert Koehler’s painting “The Strike”, which has become a symbol of class struggle and the cause of workers’ rights and the iconic painting of the industrial labor movement.
James M. Dennis is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is author of Karl Bitter, Architectural Sculptor, 1867–1915; Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture; and Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry as well as catalog essays for the traveling exhibitions Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed and Grant Wood’s Studio, Birthplace of American Gothic.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 249-273) and index.
About the Author
“A fascinating study of an artist and the fate of his most renowned painting. . . . Clear and readable . . . it takes on the character of a cultural mystery.”—Lewis Erenberg, author of The Greatest Fight of Our Generation
“Path-breaking in its conception and innovative in its approach to the intersection of art, class, and culture.”—James Lorence, author of The Unemployed People’s Movement
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Part I: Robert Koehler's Early Life, Artistic Apprenticeship, and Initial Worker Paintings
1. Koehler's Art Training: Milwaukee, Manhattan, and Munich, 1865–79
2. Images of Women: Munich, 1879–92
3. Koehler's First Worker Images and The Socialist: Munich, 1879–85
Part II: The Origin and Initial Reception of The Strike
4. Art Historical Background and the Railway Strike of 1877
5. Influences Shaping The Strike
6. Labor-History Context: An Era of Strife, 1877–86
7. A Strikebound Debut, a Conflicting Reception, a Paris Interlude: Early Exhibitions, 1886–89
Part III: Decades of Neglect
8. Milwaukee and the Chicago World's Fair: 1889–94
9. Transatlantic Progeny and a Minneapolis Refuge: 1893–1917
10. Ambiguous Purchase and Gradual Obscurity: 1900–1917
Part IV: Rediscovery and Belated Acclaim
11. Rescue, Restoration, and Return to New York City: 1917–72
12. Labor Union Patronage, Museum Exhibitions, and National Fame: 1972–82
13. Germany Reclaims a National Treasure: 1983 to the Present