Object of the Month

Title: Nostalgia
Artist: William Gropper (1897–1977)
Nationality: American
Date: 1953-56
Medium: lithograph
Credit: Gift of Evelyn Salk in memory of her husband, Erwin A. Salk, 2001.21.352012.1

William Gropper’s experiences growing up in an immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side helped inspire his career as an activist cartoonist and artist. Born in 1897 to Harry and Jenny Gropper, Jewish immigrants from Romania and Ukraine, Gropper was the eldest of six children. His father, though educated and fluent in eight languages, was forced to pursue menial work in New York’s garment industry. The inability of Gropper’s father to work to his full potential and the loss of his favorite aunt in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire spawned his early distrust in the capitalist system, a sentiment that stayed with Gropper throughout his career.

After getting his start as a political cartoonist for the New York Tribune, Gropper began to contribute to several radical leftist publications such as The Masses, The Liberator, The Revolutionary Age, and The Rebel Worker in the late 1910s and 1920s and continued to dedicate his art to radical politics in the years to come. While Gropper never became an official member of the Communist Party, Senator Joseph McCarthy called him before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Because he pled the fifth amendment and refused to name names, Gropper was blacklisted as an artist, which made it difficult for him to find public and private commissions and significantly decreased his art sales.

In reaction to the experience, Gropper created a series of 50 lithographs called Capriccios (a reference to Francisco de Goya’s Los Caprichos, which attacked the hypocrisy of late 18th-century Spain), which were intended to draw attention to social problems occurring in 1950s America. Nostalgia demonstrates Gropper’s use of sympathetic portrayals of minority workers to critique adverse and unequal conditions of the time. The image displays several African-American field hands picking cotton under the shadow of an enormous and ominous scarecrow, whose white robe-like costume and placement on a cross refer to the Ku Klux Klan.

—Claire Kissinger (WCAS 2015)

Gropper’s entire Capriccios series is on view at the Block Museum through August 11 in the exhibition Blacklisted.

You can make an appointment to see this work and others from the Block Museum's permanent collection. Email printroom@northwestern.edu or see Visit the Study Center for more information.