Labor Day 2020: 5 pieces of hard-working art

At American Frame, we’re all about the art. And when it comes to Labor Day, we’re all about art that depicts work, workers, the working class, and the fruits of their labor.  That includes art in America, or from other places and times throughout history.
But first, a little Labor Day history: According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, Labor Day is “dedicated to the social and economic achievement of American workers.” It’s been observed annually in the United States since 1882, first in Oregon; then, by thirty more states starting in 1894, when it became an official federal holiday; and today, throughout the country, on the first Monday in September.
Yes, there are countless great examples of “hard-working” art, good enough to be included in our Labor Day images. Here are five (we’d give anything to put each of them in a wood frame, but in the case of numbers 3 and 5, that wouldn’t be possible):
1. “The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder 
In 2015, Randy Kennedy of the New York Times called “The Harvesters” (1565, oil on wood, 46 7/8” x 63 ¾”) “the Mona Lisa of New York labor paintings.” For the pre-Industrial Age when agrarians worked the land, it’s a quintessential work. “The Harvesters” has been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for nearly a century, and depicts field hands – some who are actually working – on a hot summer day in the Netherlands. In a poem about the painting, William Carlos Williams specifically mentions the man sleeping “under a tree/whose shade/carelessly” he does not share.

2. “Rosie the Riveter” by J. Howard Miller
In World War II, there wasn’t just one “Rosie the Riveter.”
First, there was the “Rosie the Riveter” song, written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, which included this inspiring refrain:
All day long,
whether rain or shine,
she’s a part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter.
Then came Norman Rockwell’s Rosie, which graced the cover of the Memorial Day 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post magazine. Rockwell depicted the fictional icon in the same pose Michaelangelo painted the prophet Isaiah on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Rockwell’s Rosie was famous then, but it’s not the version most people think of today.
That distinction goes to a work by J. Howard Miller, who painted the divine Ms. R flexing her bicep, wearing a red bandana, and saying – That is a speech bubble, right? – “We Can Do It.” Miller’s version was displayed for two weeks inside the factories of the Westinghouse Corporation, but it became immensely popular decades later. Feminists in the post-Vietnam War era were looking for an image that was appealing but not pro-war, and showed that women could perform jobs traditionally held by men. Originally, Miller’s Rosie was about winning World War II. Since the 1970’s, it’s symbolized women’s ability to do anything they put their minds to.
NOTE: Beyonce posted a version of herself as Rosie on Instagram in 2014; at the time, she had more than 153 million followers; in 1943, the circulation of the Saturday Evening Post, when Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” graced the cover, was six million.

3. “Detroit Industry” by Diego Rivera
It was three years after the crash of the Great Depression. Edsel Ford, son of Henry, ponied up $20,000 worth of financial backing. It was inspired by the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge auto manufacturing complex just down the road. In 1932, in the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Diego Rivera, a painter from Guanajuato, Mexico, began what would eventually be called “Detroit Industry,” a series of 27 frescoes – more than 450 square yards – covering all four walls of the court. The subject matter of the frescoes include stamping presses, conveyor belts, furnaces, coal-powered electricity, geology, technology, and, of course, workers. Oh, and Henry Ford himself is in there, too. 

4. “Iron and Coal” by William Bell Scott
Scott was also a poet and teacher who became one of the first British artists to depict the Industrial Revolution in his paintings. His 6 ft. x 6 ft. watercolor “Iron and Coal” was painted in 1856 on a wall in the house of Sir Walter Trevelyan, the heir of a lead and mining fortune, to celebrate the city of Newcastle upon Tyne’s industrial success. “Progress is a law of nature,” Scott wrote in his autobiography. Historians of industrialism appreciate the painting because it positions hard work every bit as important as innovation to success in business; and because it contains signs of the English caste system in the day.

5. “California” by Maxine Albro
The Federal Art Project was created in 1935 as part of FDR’s New Deal to help sustain the lives and careers of American artists and craft workers. It ended up helping about 10,000, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and one of the country’s most prominent female artists, Maxine Albro. Her enormous (10 ft. x 42 ft.) mural “California” depicts the bounty of California agriculture. It’s one of many New Deal paintings created by more than two dozen artists in Coit Tower, a San Francisco landmark. Included in Albro’s mural is an eagle, a symbol of the National Recovery Administration. The goal of the NRA (not to be confused with today’s National Rifle Association) was to bring industry, labor and government together to create codes of fair practices and set prices.

We hope you had a great Labor Day 2020, and thanks for reading. Now get back to work.