Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on December 15, 2009 by permission of the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Hillstrom Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


William Gropper

by Elizabeth Baer and Donald Myers



William Gropper (1897-1977), according to his epitaph, was an artist "whose art was always on the side of man." This description aptly summarizes Gropper's attitude, and also indicates the environment in which he was raised. He was born in New York's Lower East Side, where Jewish immigrants were concentrated. His Gropper grandfather had come from Rumania to the area early, and his parents had very little. Gropper's father was an intellectual who had difficulty holding the menial jobs he found, and the family was supported largely through the efforts of Gropper's mother, who not only labored in a garment workshop but also took home piecework. The youthful Gropper himself worked to help the family, and among his early drawings are images of his mother hunched over a sewing machine at night and of himself as a boy hoisting a heavy barrel as part of his job helping deliver food to local saloons.

Gropper's formal education was sparse. He attended public school only until he was fourteen. He also spent some time in a Jewish heder, largely due to the influence of his grandfather, who exhorted Gropper's parents to raise him religiously (deemed a luxury by the parents). When the grandfather threatened to disinherit the family, they relented and young William began attending a Hebrew school with a stern rabbi who would pinch students when they erred in their lessons.

At an early age, Gropper showed an aptitude for draftsmanship (which was to remain the basis for his art throughout his career), and he received a medal for drawing during his elementary school years. Gropper would frequently sketch, on pads carried in his pockets and on the sidewalks and walls of his neighborhood. These sketches were noticed and led to Gropper being invited to study drawing at the Ferrer School, where he attended night classes from 1912-1915.

The school was a loosely run, very liberal institution named after executed Spanish anarchist and educator Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909). Students there encountered prominent, radical thinkers such as feminist Emma Goldman (1869-1940), a communist and co-founder of the Ferrer School, or Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the much-maligned early advocate of birth control (whose own son attended the school). Artistic instruction at the Ferrer was quite unstructured, and students and artists of widely varying levels of competency, training, and professional development would work side by side, often sketching from a model and usually having informal discussions or critiques as part of the process. Painter Robert Henri (1865-1929), the leader of the "Ashcan School" that sought to embrace everyday, urban experience was, along with fellow Ashcan artist George Bellows (1882-1925), a principal art instructor at the Ferrer School, and both artists were very influential on Gropper.

In 1915 Gropper met Frank Alvah Parsons, head of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, and he was offered a scholarship that led to two years of study there, during which he won numerous prizes. This, in turn, led to a job drawing for the New York Tribune, a conservative, anti-Communist publication. Gropper and a reporter from the Tribune were sent to investigate the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the socialist association known as the "Wobblies." Instead of submitting the expected critical coverage, Gropper and his colleague became sympathetic and involved themselves in publishing the IWW's paper, The Rebel Worker. Although Gropper worked anonymously as its cartoonist, his style was recognized and the Tribune fired him.



Gropper then entered the period of his career in which he became known as one of the most prominent, socially minded artists of the time. He was associated with a number of liberal publications, including the New Masses and the Yiddish publication Freiheit, and eventually he drew for more mainstream magazines such as Esquire or Vanity Fair. He devoted much effort to the troubles of the unfortunate or oppressed and to social situations in general. In 1927 he and his wife Sophie traveled to the Soviet Union, along with authors Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) and Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) and others, to mark the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution. During their prolonged stay, the artist made many drawings, some of which appeared in Soviet newspapers and a group of over fifty of which were published in 1929. In 1937 Gropper was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to travel west to witness the Dust Bowl. From this experience, he published a series of insightful drawings with sympathetic captions that appeared in The Nation later that year.

Perhaps Gropper's most infamous drawing from this period, one that caused an international fracas, appeared in Vanity Fair in August 1935. The cartoon was part of a series suggested by editor Frank Crowninshield in which several impossible situations would be depicted, including William Randolph Hearst becoming American ambassador to the Soviet Union, the King of Italy berating Mussolini, or Japanese Emperor Hirohito being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Italian drawing was dropped from the group-a letter from Crowninshield to Gropper indicates concern that Vanity Fair could lose significant business from Italian concerns-but the one of Hirohito was published, and it deeply offended the Emperor and the Japanese government, which demanded an apology. The drawing shows the Emperor decked out in medal-encrusted military regalia, pulling a rickshaw-like cart on which an oversized scroll is carried. The scroll ostensibly represents the Peace Prize, but its form and size combine with the wheels of the cart to make it appear that Hirohito is dragging a cannon behind him. The bellicose actions of the Japanese in mainland Asia, including the invasion and occupation of Manchuria, had brought their warring activities into public discussion well before Japan's entry into World War II.

Gropper refused to apologize for his drawing, and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull had to explain to the Japanese that he had no control over the press. The Japanese retaliated economically, applying pressure to advertisers in Vanity Fair, and this eventually brought about the demise of the publication. The unrepentant Gropper repeated much of the cartoon's imagery, in a December issue of the New Masses. Here Hirohito wears a single, swastika-bearing medal and pulls another cart, this time with an armed skeleton riding on it, across Manchuria and into China.

In the period leading up to and during World War II, Gropper published many additional works that decried the actions of the Fascists. He began in this time to deal directly with his identity as a Jew. As with many Jewish artists, before the war era, Gropper's art did not particularly reflect an interest in his Jewish heritage (and Gropper never had his bar mitzvah, despite his brief attendance at the Hebrew school). Gropper noted, "Hitler and fascism made me aware that I was a Jew. I think all intellectuals who were never concerned with their faith were thrown into an awareness by these atrocities."

The Hillstrom Museum of Art drawing seems to be related to Gropper's wartime experiences and those that shortly followed the War, as will be discussed below. Gropper's probing of the social and political situation continued throughout the rest of his career, including a heartfelt 1963 painting titled I Have a Dream, of black and white children playing together in a sunny, bright landscape and, near the end of his career, images dealing with Watergate. Always looking for truth through his art, Gropper painted around 1945 a philosophical self-portrait in the guise of Diogenes, who carried a lantern in his quest for an honest man.



The style of Gropper's work is generally characterized by an immediacy and a graphic strength that comes from his experience as a cartoonist. Gropper's art is never merely propaganda without aesthetic concern, but it is art first, with its social message made all the more effective for it being tied to artistically successful imagery. Art critic Ralph M. Pearson, in a 1940 article in Forum magazine, noted, "the most weighty reason for Gropper's importance is that he does not forget art when he is an avenger or prophet. His propaganda is always art; his art is sometimes propaganda."

Gropper was influenced by many different artists and styles for both his general and specific artistic approach. He was sometimes called the Daumier of his day, after the great French political cartoonist Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), who shared with Gropper not only an incisive ability in draftsmanship but also a probing interest in the oddities and stupidities of humans, especially those in power. Gropper was also heavily influenced by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and a number of connections to works by Goya can be found, including Gropper's 1940 oil painting titled Firing Squad that relates closely to Goya's famous 1813 image of Napoleonic forces haphazardly slaughtering Spaniards, The Third of May, 1808. Gropper also drew from Goya in a series of prints dating from 1953 to 1956 in which he commented upon the idiocy that gripped the nation during the McCarthy era. Gropper was blacklisted when he refused to cooperate with Senator McCarthy's committee when it investigated his images of American folklore figures such as Paul Bunyan (which were deemed somehow subversive). Gropper titled his prints relating to this experience the Caprichos, borrowing the title of Goya's 1799 etchings, which exposed the follies of late eighteenth century Spanish society.

Two other of the widely varied artistic influences on Gropper are Asian art and Cubism. Some of this influence can be seen in the Hillstrom ink and wash drawing, which likely dates to 1960, since it was purchased by Reverend Hillstrom not long after and since there is another, larger drawing of the same name from that year (published in an exhibition catalogue a few years later). The loose, dotted, energetic and calligraphic handling of the ink in the Hillstrom work connects it to Japanese and Chinese ink painting, and also further supports the 1960 dating, since this handling is very similar to a published drawing from that year. The disjointed quality of the form of the old man in The Wanderer is found with some frequency in Gropper's work, an influence of the fracturing effect in Cubist art.

The Wanderer is a powerful image that immediately grabs the viewer's attention. Gropper reddened the figure's eyes, reserving this intense color for only that purpose and for his signature in the lower right of the drawing. The forlorn state of the man is thereby emphasized and his status as a "wanderer" is indicated (the reference is both to the antisemitic legend that Christ condemned a Jewish figure to restlessly wander the earth for being disrespectful on the way to the Crucifixion, and, more importantly, to the dispossessed status of Jews since the conquests against the ancient Jewish kingdoms). The plight of the Jews is depicted in the man's body language, including the arthritic contortion of his hand and the disjointed form of his torso, as well as in his facial expression. Both the subject and the intensity of the drawing associate it with several works Gropper made in response to his visit to the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw after World War II in 1948.



Earlier, on April 19, 1943, an astonishing event had taken place: Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against their Nazi oppressors and staved off deportation to death camps for almost a month. This revolt was astonishing not because the Jews of Europe, marked for destruction by the Third Reich, had not resisted before-they had on many occasions-but because such resistance was truly a David and Goliath story.

When the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, thereby initiating World War II, 30% of the population of Warsaw, the capital city, was Jewish. Almost immediately, these Jews were forced to wear an armband with a blue Star of David, and were subject to a variety of forms of discrimination. A year later, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto by building a ten-foot wall around a 1.5-square-mile area of the city. A half a million Jews were then forced to leave their homes and live in crowded, unsanitary conditions with a diet intentionally devised by the Nazis to insure starvation. Each month, 5,000-6,000 ghetto inhabitants died of disease, hunger, hypothermia, and shootings.

In the summer of 1942, when the Holocaust was at its height, 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to nearby Treblinka, a killing center. Though told they were being "resettled in the East," these Jews were usually dead from gassing within a few hours of their arrival at Treblinka. Reports of these deaths leaked back to the ghetto and thus was founded the ZOB, or the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa), a secret resistance force. In the spring of 1943, rumors of an impending deportation spread through the ghetto and the ZOB-755 fighters strong-immediately moved into action.

One of these fighters was a woman named Vladka Meed, who has told her story in a gripping memoir titled On Both Sides of the Wall. Meed recounts how she and others, over the months, slipped out of the ghetto in work details or through the sewers. Reaching the "Aryan" side of the ghetto wall, they would then organize guns and the ingredients for Molotov cocktails and smuggle them back into the ghetto to be hidden away until needed.

That day came on April 19, 1943. The ZOB recognized that the well-equipped Nazis would eventually overcome their resistance; but the motto of the ZOB was "All are ready to die as human beings." They had agreed that a death on their own terms, demonstrating the courage of the imprisoned Jews, was preferable to a Nazi-engineered extermination. For almost a month, the resistance held out and succeeded in killing several Nazis. However, on May 16, the revolt came to an end. Nazi officer Jurgen Stroop had commanded that the Great Synagogue of Warsaw be torched and that the ghetto be systematically burned down, block by block. Many members of the ZOB died in the ensuing fighting and fires; others were captured and sent to Treblinka to their deaths.



Five years later, in 1948, Jewish American artist William Gropper visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Gropper, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, had sought an art education against great economic odds: "Right then," Gropper has stated, "I began to realize that you don't paint with color-you paint with conviction, freedom, love, and heart-aches, with what you have."

Years later, Gropper still fiercely adhered to the notion that art must be politically informed and morally grounded. In an interview given when he was 70, he declared: "That's my heritage. I'm from the old school, defending the underdog. Maybe because I've been an underdog or still am. I put myself in their position. I feel for the people. I have to face things in the most brutal way that I can and let it out and then feel better. Maybe it's my heredity or maybe it's my way of life. I can't close my eyes and say it is the best of all possible worlds and let it go at that. I become involved."

So, by virtue of both his heritage and his life experience, it was perhaps inevitable what would happen when Gropper went to Warsaw in 1948. He had already published a pamphlet on the Nazi atrocities at the small Czech town of Lidice: after high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich was ambushed on the road near Prague in May, 1942, the Nazis shot all the men in the nearby town of Lidice, burned the entire town to the ground, and deported the women and children to Ravensbrück and other German concentration camps. Gropper also created the illustrations for a small book titled Never to Forget: The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, in collaboration with author Howard Fast who wrote the accompanying poem (the entire text of this 1946 publication can been seen at www.trussel.com/hf/warsaw.htm.) Now, standing in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1948, Gropper was face to face with both Jewish heroism and Nazi inhumanity.

Gropper made a pledge: that each year he would draw or paint a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Wanderer is likely one of that series. It is comparable to several other works by Gropper of which reproductions have been published, all of Jewish men garbed in traditional prayer shawl. Two of these date from during the War: Prayer from 1944, and De Profundis from 1943 or 1944. The latter includes a Hebrew inscription of title, which is from the opening line of Psalm 130 (Psalm 129 in the Hebrew version), "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord." In De Profundis, Gropper depicts the man wearing a phylactery, or tefillin, which is a small box containing a quotation from Hebrew scripture and strapped to the left arm and forehead by Jewish men as they recite morning prayers. Phylacteries are also worn by the figures in Gropper's Prayer of 1955 and his Dedication of 1966, the latter of which carries the inscription "dedicated to the memory of the victims in the Warsaw Ghetto." In this painting, the man raises his fists to heaven, his mouth open, in a gesture of rage. Others of the related works depict the old, bearded man in a posture of supplication, of prayer, of sadness, perhaps of bafflement. These include the afore-mentioned paintings titled Prayer (1944 and 1955) and De Profundis (1943 or 1944), plus Prayer Shawl from 1962 and another work titled Dedication, from 1964. The Wanderer from the Hillstrom Collection is similar to these images in the despondency that is read on the man's face.



Why is it important to know about the history of this painting? We live in an age of genocide. The twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history. By one estimate, 170,000,000 people were killed in genocidal slaughter, most often by their own governments. The deaths began in the first decades of the century with the Herero tribe in Namibia at the hands of the German colonizers and the Armenians at the hands of the Turks. It continued through the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked to death with machetes by government-sponsored Hutus in three months' time, a more efficient rate of killing than the Nazis despite the primitive weapons used. Today, government-funded Janjaweed militia continue to kill innocent Sudanese in Darfur, despite a recent effort to sign a peace agreement; more than 400,000 Darfurians have been killed and two and a half million have been displaced.

In the aftermath of such genocides, the societies involved must come to terms with what happened, with the fact that killers continue to live among them, with the memories that haunt the victims who survived and the relatives of victims who died, with the urgent need to prevent a reoccurrence of genocide. In the post-Holocaust era in Germany, the Germans actually created a specific word to name this process of coming to terms with the past: vergangenheitsbewältigung. Such a coming to terms involves many things: legal procedures in an effort to see that the killers are brought to justice; a transition in national leadership; a process whereby restitution of some kind is made available to survivors; the creation of memorials to assure the memory of the dead. A critical part of this process is artistic production: literature, music, visual arts that memorialize those lost, that help a community to try to understand how such a genocide could have occurred, and that serve as a warning of "Never Again."

William Gropper clearly understood the power of creating a memorial to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. By interpreting this painting in the Hillstrom Collection, we as a community acknowledge the history of the Holocaust, the oppression of Jews during the past 2000 years, and the contribution made by William Gropper to memorialization; we also highlight the ability of visual art to capture mourning and rage, to make a political statement, and to help humanity both come to terms with the past and endeavor to prevent such suffering and cruelty from reoccurring.

Scholar James Young, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has written extensively on the meaning of monuments and memorials. "The aim of memorials," he asserts, "is not to call attention to their own presence so much as to past events because they are no longer present." Young continues: "Through attention to the activity of memorialization, we remind ourselves that public memory is constructed, that understanding of events depends on memory's construction, and that there are worldly consequences in the kinds of historical understanding generated by monuments." Creating memory of the Holocaust is particularly important as no gravesites of the six million Jews who died exist. We are, in effect, memorializing an absence. Postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard put it another way: "Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself."

One can imagine that William Gropper hoped viewers of this image would remember that the Nazis annihilated two thirds of Europe's Jewish population while the world stood by. Audiences in 2006 would appropriately recognize in The Wanderer their own responsibility to be aware of social injustice around the globe and to take what steps they can to eradicate it.

Suggestions for further reading:

Freundlich, August L., William Gropper: Retrospective, The Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, with the Joe and Emily Lowe Art Gallery of the University of Miami.
Lozowick, Louis, William Gropper, The Art Alliance Press, Philadelphia, 1983.
Meed, Vladka, On Both Sides of the Wall, Holocaust Library, Israel, 1993 (originally published in Yiddish in 1948).
Sorini, Emiliano, Gropper, Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings, Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1998.
Young, James, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993.


About the authors

Elizabeth Baer is Professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Donald Myers is Director of the Hillstrom Museum of Art.

(above: William Gropper, The Wanderer, the Hillstrom Collection)


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 15, 2009 with permission of the Hillstrom Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on December 14, 2009.

This essay is part of the FOCUS IN/ON program of the Hillstrom Museum of Art in which the expertise of Gustavus Adolphus College community members across the curriculum are engaged for a collaborative, detailed consideration of particular individual objects from the Hillstrom Collection.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Donald Myers of the Hillstrom Museum of Art for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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