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In Honor of Labor Day, Art for the Workers’ Sake

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Labor Day is a chance to honor the working man and woman

Labor Day may be considered by many as the final hurrah for summer fun, but it’s origins are much more meaningful. And art is one great way to celebrate the holiday’s roots.

Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. The labor movement created the day in the late 19th century and it became a federal holiday in 1894.

At this time, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, most Americans worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 toiled in factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. Congress approved the federal holiday in response to massive strikes from workers protesting wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. (Read more on the history at History.com.)

In the decades since, artists have paid tribute to the working class. Here are a few of our favorite works of art that salute America’s blue-collar workers.

Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

The famous 1932 photo shows 11 men eating lunch, seated on a girder with their feet dangling 840 feet above the New York City streets. According to a Wikipedia entry, the photo was prearranged, but the men photographed were real ironworkers. For years, it wasn’t known who took the photo, but photographer Charles C. Ebbets was later credited.

Rosie the Riveter

One of the most iconic posters in American history is that of Rosie the Riveter. It was originally produced in 1943 by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and displayed in its factories to encourage more women to join the wartime labor force. Created by the artist J. Howard Miller, it featured a woman in a red-and-white polka-dot headscarf and blue shirt, flexing her bicep beneath the phrase “We Can Do It!”

The woman believed to have inspired the poster, Naomi Parker, died in 2018 at the age of 96.

Labor Day
Naomi Parker Fraley, the inspiration behind Rosie the Riveter, died in January 2018.
National Archives Identifier 535803 With nearly 1000 [African-American] women employed as burners, welders, scalers, and in other capacities at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, women war workers played an important part in the construction of the Liberty Ship, SS George Washington Carver, launched on May 7th, 1943. Welder -trainee Josie Lucille Owens plies her trade on the ship., 1941 – 1945

Norman Rockwell’s tribute to the working class

According to the Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell’s version of Rosie the Riveter was inspired by 19-year-old Arlington, Vermont, telephone operator Mary Doyle. The artist later apologized to Mary for adding substantial weight to her slender figure.

This painting from Rockwell shows that work, even mundane office work, can have its perks.

Other powerful tributes to workers

[Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“City Building” is part of “America Today” (1930-31), Thomas Hart Benton’s magisterial 10-panel mural cycle. The work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Japanese-American painter Bumpei Usui created this work, “The Furniture Factory” in 1925. It is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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Karl Gude drew this depiction of the work day while commuting in New York City.

RISING FROM THE RAILS: THE STORY OF THE PULLMAN PORTER explores the little-known history of the African American men hired to work on railroad sleeping cars beginning in the late 1860s. Serving wealthy, white passengers in the golden age of rail travel, the Pullman Porters carried labor organizing skills, civil rights ideals, and elements of black culture – such as jazz and blues – across the country. As trailblazers in the struggle for African American self-sufficiency, the Pullman Porters inspired future generations of independent black leaders, including their own future descendants.

This photo from Frank Mckenna on Unsplash of a welder working in Vietnam caught our eye because of the vibrant color.

This painting of a painter taking a break from his work is by artist Stevan Dohanos, who likely related to the subject in the painting. The work was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

More Artistic Fuel:

Artist Hank Willis Thomas Criticizes What We Often Hold Dear

In Jacksonville, Rediscovering a City’s Heart Through Public Art

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