Born in New York, William Gropper grew up in the city’s Lower East Side. As a youth he assisted his mother, a seamstress, by transporting bundles of cloth between the sweatshops and their tenement home, and when he was fourteen, he left school to work in a clothing store. Drawing was his only release, and at age nineteen he won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design. He quickly tired of working from plaster casts and entered the life drawing classes of Robert Henri and George Bellows at the Ferrer School.
The art of Goya and Daumier made an indelible impression on Gropper, who became convinced that art should be humanistic and honest. His bold cartoons of the 1920s appeared in publications like the New Masses and Rebel Worker. His activities as a labor organizer and three visits to the Soviet Union further contributed to his growing reputation as a radical. By the later 1930s, however, Gropper was also known for his oil paintings and murals. His drawings of the Grand Coulee and Boulder (Hoover) dams, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937, developed into a monumental mural, The Construction of a Dam, at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. Blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, Gropper retaliated by producing a vitriolic series of fifty lithographs, Caprichos, based on the hearings.
Gropper’s social-realist paintings are simple, bold, and vigorous. Active lines, distorted forms, energetic brushwork, and expressive color give them a sense of modernism’s immediacy, but aesthetic issues were secondary to thematic concerns. Often creating variations on a theme, Gropper generalized and exaggerated details to make his works universal and dramatic.
Gropper believed his art could inspire people to be more compassionate and to fight for change. He also agreed with his teachers Henri and Bellows that art should be truthful to the human condition. Gropper continued to produce socially significant art until his death in 1977.