Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 12, 2012
James M. Dennis The Strike: The Improbable Story of an Iconic 1886 Painting of Labor Protest Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. 238 pp.; 8 color ills.; 68 b/w ills.; 76 ills. Paper $24.95 (9780299251345)

James M. Dennis, professor emeritus of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells the story of the “improbable” life of The Strike by Robert Koehler, one of the first American paintings to document the tensions between labor and management with detailed precision. “One of my aims in writing this book,” Dennis explains, “has been to provide a historic context to this discourse by restoring to contemporary awareness a quintessentially ‘socially engaged’ work of art produced more than 125 years ago—its origins, its admirers and detractors, its maltreatment, rediscovery, and ultimate transnational apotheosis” (6). Included in the series Studies in American Thought and Culture, edited by Paul Boyer, the book was published with the blessing and financial support of the family of the late Lee Baxandall, who was responsible for rescuing this painting from modern neglect.

Dennis brings to light many interesting players in the history of this painting. First and foremost, he provides a biographical sketch of the German-American artist Robert Koehler. He also focuses attention on Baxandall, the Marxist cultural critic, who acquired the painting in 1970 and compiled a vast archive of relevant historical materials. Moreover, Dennis profiles Moe Foner, executive secretary of Local 1199 of the Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, which gave the painting its first temporary public home in the 1970s. Dennis also credits the art historian Patricia Hills, who provided the first scholarly analysis of the work during her time as associate curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Having witnessed the national railroad strike of 1877, Koehler kept the memory of this event alive in his large-scale painting The Strike, which he produced in Munich in 1885. The painting depicts a gathering of workers at the factory owner’s door. The boss—top-hatted and silk-suited—stands at the top of the stairs listening to the complaints of a worker. Passions run high; men and young boys hasten to this meeting where expressions and postures reveal defiance and anger. In particular, a figure in the foreground prominently leans over to pick up a rock. Dennis convincingly argues for the important role of women in the painting. A worker’s family appears in the left foreground—a mother and her children in tattered clothing stand in worried expectation. With such imagery, the painter rejects the depiction of poverty as picturesque. Importantly, Dennis newly identifies the woman to the center of the painting not as a worker’s wife but as a middle-class woman of the “helping” professions—probably a social worker, “representative of a small but socially significant number of contemporary feminist activists who supported the cause of labor, encouraged industrial workers to organize, and in many cases also worked to advance the socialist cause” (78).

Displayed in New York at the National Academy of Design in April 1886, the painting took on a broader significance when viewed within the context of contemporary labor concerns. A reproduction of the work appeared as a two-page engraving in the May 1, 1886, issue of Harper’s Weekly, referencing the demonstrations taking place across the country in support of the eight-hour work day. The engraving reached the homes of middle-class readers with the news of the notorious Haymarket bombing that had taken place on May 4. At this historical juncture, the painting and engraving produced a record of class tensions rarely addressed in American visual culture.

As German-Americans were disproportionately represented in the anarchist movement, The Strike—painted by a German-American artist in Munich—became forever identified with this revolutionary ideology in both the United States and Germany. To be sure, the work attracted much attention in both the American and German press as it was uniquely positioned between two worlds—the industrial battles taking place in the United States among workers and capitalists, and the ideological class conflicts occurring in Germany under the conservative regime of Bismarck. While Dennis lays out the painting’s international circulation, the work begs for a more complex reading of this cross-cultural, cosmopolitan context.

When shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the painting was completely ignored—not one critic mentioned it, nor did it receive any commendation by a jury. This comes as no surprise, as I have argued in Visualizing Labor in American Sculpture: Monuments, Manliness, and the Work Ethic, 1880–1935 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, rpt. 2011 in paperback). Haunted by the specter of the Haymarket tragedy and identified with strikes that delayed the fair’s opening, the workers in The Strike telegraphed social conflict and labor violence that did not serve the interests of elite art patrons and middle-class fair goers at the time.

Soon thereafter, the painting entered a period of obscurity. In December 1901, the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts purchased The Strike from Koehler, presented it to the city, and installed it in a hallway of the Minneapolis Public Library. Not until 1967, when Henry Nash Smith included it in his anthology Popular Culture and Industrialism, 1865–1890 (New York: New York University Press, 1967), did the painting receive any attention from modern viewers. Enter Baxandall, who tracked down the painting’s location deep in the storage vault of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, after the library had turned it over for safekeeping. The painting was in terrible shape—with a dark and murky surface, a ten-inch gash below the feet of the central woman, large areas of missing pigment, and other smaller lacerations. In 1971, Baxandall bought the work for $750 and paid for its restoration. In his hands, the painting became an emblem of the aspirations of the New Left. “Decontextualized as a kind of generic, all-purpose representation of labor on the march,” Dennis explains, Koehler’s painting was put to many uses by progressive pro-labor forces in the 1970s (180).

Not surprisingly, the painting underwent a renaissance. It was put on public display in Local 1199’s Bread and Roses Gallery in New York City. It appeared in a number of national and international exhibitions, the first of which was The Painter’s America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810–1910, curated by Hills at the Whitney in 1974. Hills also included the painting in the exhibition The Working American, organized with Abigail Booth Gerdts for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in 1979. In 1983, it appeared in the major German exhibition, Das Andere Amerika. The prestigious collector of American art Richard A. Monoogian purchased the painting in 1989, but no American institution was interested in retaining it. In 1990, it finally found a home in the collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Dennis’s book brings attention to the visual culture of nineteenth-century labor and working-class history and provides a rich, if imperfect, biography of the painting. The text plods along in a diffuse manner; analysis of the painting—both formal and iconographic—trails across several chapters without clear, strong argumentation. Moreover, the book does not situate the painting in the contemporary critical debates regarding the representation of labor, but instead makes the problematic claim that “scholarship on labor-related or ‘socially engaged’ art in recent years . . . tends to be present-minded and often theory-driven” (6). To be sure, the study of nineteenth-century American labor imagery remains in its infancy. However, Dennis may have cited the work of Lois Dinnerstein, Thomas Pauly, Randall Griffin, or myself, for example—all of whom have tried to address the political tensions and ideological contradictions inherent in nineteenth-century representations of the industrial worker (Lois Dinnerstein, “The Iron Worker and King Solomon: Some Images of Labor in American Art,” Arts 54 [September 1979]: 112–17; Thomas H. Pauly, “American Art and Labor: The Case of Anshutz’s The Ironworkers’ Noontime,” American Quarterly 40 [September 1988]: 333-59; Randall Griffin, “Thomas Anshutz’s The Ironworkers’ Noontime: Remythologizing the Industrial Worker,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4 [Summer/Fall 1990]: 129–45; Melissa Dabakis, “Martyrs and Monuments of Chicago: The Haymarket Affair,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, Jack Salzman, ed., vol. 19 (1994): 99–135). Also omitted from Dennis’s bibliography is Klaus Türk’s massive catalogue of the paintings and sculpture of labor imagery in the Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection at Milwaukee School of Engineering, as well as his useful website Bilder der Arbeit that contains an archive of over 1,500 reproductions of labor imagery and further scholarly references (Klaus Türk, Man at Work: 400 Years in Paintings and Bronzes; Labor and the Evolution of Industry in Art, Milwaukee: MSOE Press, 2003); for the updated website and archive of labor imagery see Most recently, Ross Barrett has published an important article in The Art Bulletin, “Rioting Refigured: George Henry Hall and the Picturing of American Political Violence” (The Art Bulletin 92, no. 3 [September 2010]: 211–31), which won the Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize. His essay forms part of a larger book project, “Rendering Violence: Riots, Strikes, and Upheaval in Nineteenth-Century American Art.” These recent publications demonstrate an interest in nineteenth-century working-class and labor studies, particularly now as we all endure the current moment of mass unemployment, labor strife, and never-ending economic recession.

Melissa Dabakis
Professor and Chair, Art History Department, Kenyon College