Object of the Month

Title: John Henry’s Mad
Artist: Donato “Dan” Rico (1912–1985)
Nationality: American
Date: ca. 1937
Medium: Wood engraving
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1995.66

According to American legend, John Henry was a 19th-century steel-driver who helped to construct a railroad. When he competed against a steam-powered hammer to prove he could work faster, John Henry won—then died of exhaustion.

“Marxists take the story as an allegory about how advancing, machine-powered industry crushes the manual laborer,” explains John Murphy, curator of the Block Museum’s upcoming exhibition The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 which includes Rico’s print. Murphy, a PhD candidate in art history, says it demonstrates how leftist artists used folk heroes like Henry and Paul Bunyan “to construct a working-class mythology.” Rico created numerous prints depicting Depression-era life for the WPA’s Federal Art Project.

 “As an African American folk hero, Henry is also interesting in terms of race history,” Murphy adds. “In the ’30s, civil rights was a big issue and the leftist artists created haunting anti-lynching images and images of racial solidarity. So, representing John Henry as a powerful black figure in an apocalyptic setting, as Rico does, may be a comment on race relations in the 1930s, or a comment on the failure of the industrial machine age to support the working class.” 

As Henry looms over the landscape, lightning sizzling in the background, he also resembles a 20th-century superhero. Soon after Rico made this print, he began a decades-long career in comics and animation—as well as fiction and screenwriting—spending several years as an artist and writer at what would become Marvel Comics.