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Work as Painted on Canvas

Genre art is described as the use of media to depict scenes or aspects of everyday life. Focused as it is on people engaged in life, it offers us an image of the activity. It allows us to reflect on and interpret the scene … to derive meaning from the portrayal.

There is no stated “work” genre in art. However, many of the scenes that inspired genre art involved work. It may have been the realist who captured the actual activity, or the interpretive, who sought to offer an impression of the act of working. No matter the approach, artistic representations of people at work provide a glimpse of the day’s work.

We’ll add art works (sorry, but the pun couldn’t be avoided!) as we go, but we would love to hear your suggestions. If you know of a painting/sculpture that evokes work or jobs in you, send us a note and we’ll try to include it on this page. Happy viewing!


On View in Our Gallery

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Art Works About Work at our Exhibit

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Edward Hopper
Oil on canvas, 1942
Edward Hopper
Oil on canvas, 1942
Owned by The Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Hopper is an American Realist. Nighthawks is perhaps his most famous painting, inspired, he says, “by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” Three customers in an all-night diner … a stop on the way home after a long day’s work? One server, in the middle of a long night’s work. Separate but connected, the painting for me captures the symmetry of working the counter … keeping a community of customers close in a disjointed setting.

You can find more about the painting at Wikimedia and
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Oil on canvas, c1865
On display at The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Meunier was a Belgian realist painting in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. He was also a renowned sculptor, whose paintings and sculpture celebrated the worker as a social image. His works focused on manual labor found in Belgium, depicting work in the fields, on the docks, in the factories, and in and around the mines. As such, his work neatly captures the growth of the industrial revolution, and the image of the worker as part of the process.

Meunier’s interest in the difficult and dangerous work of the laborer was very broad based. His focus on work in the mines came later in his career, beginning around 1885. In The Miners, we see the toughness of the young worker, but the weariness as well. Streaked by dirt, wearing bandanas, the workers here are taking a break, a momentary pause from their labors. While they rest, though, the work continues … the never-ending process as the mill in the background belches smoke from its furnace. Cast in mute shades of brown, tan, and orange, and mired in a denuded landscape, we see the laborer as a weary part of the process.

For a great study of Meunier’s work, visit The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium here. It is a wonderful multimedia site with a fascinating exhibit of Meunier’s masterful imagery of the 19th century worker. Highly recommended.
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The Miners
Constatin-Emile Meunier
Oil on canvas, c1865
The Miners
Constatin-Emile Meunier

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Office at Night
Edward Hopper
Oil on canvas, 1940
Office at Night
Edward Hopper
Oil on canvas, 1940
Owned by the Walker Art Center

Another work by the American realist, focusing on people in work settings. In Office at Night, he offers a portrayal of work roles that speaks to an earlier time. The man is shown poring over an item of great interest while his secretary focuses on the filing of the forms … or the man in power?

Hopper noted that his idea for the painting arose from numerous subway runs through the city. He said the painting was “probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.” There is an air of question in the painting, hinting at substance beyond the work roles. Also, note the subtle movement in the work, evidenced by the window shade’s draw blowing in on the wind, a “stirring’ as described in the painter’s notes. Late nights in the office, with all their double meaning.

You can find more about the painting at Wikimedia and
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Oil on canvas, 1863
Owned by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Some consider this to be Ford Madox Brown’s, a pre-Raphaelite painter, most important work. With such a broad title, the painting does aim to embrace a broad view of work, but immerses the viewer in the detail of the day. As described in a Wikipedia entry, Brown described his intent “to demonstrate that the modern British workman could be as fit a subject for art as the more supposedly picturesque Italian lazarone (literally, the ‘mob’’ used to describe the street people of Naples).”

Brown’s overriding subject is thought to be the rapid change of work in mid-19th century community, particularly the growing gulf between workers, idlers , and a growing underclass. The central activity is focused on manual labor used to build an underground railway. These laborers are depicted as surrounded by a weather class (woman under the parasol and Couple on horseback), as well as a lower class group. Note the barefoot flower woman, the “ragamuffin” children in the foreground, and the seemingly unemployed sleeping under the trees to the right. Peering over all are two gentlemen … intellectuals, managers, or the mildly interested idlers?

We find in Brown’s work an interesting study of work … central to society, closely watched by other citizens, but increasingly separated by class and socio-economic differences.

Given the widening gap between workers and wealth holders today, Brown’s classic Work seems hauntingly prophetic.
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Ford Madox Brown’s Work
Oil on canvas, 1863
Ford Madox Brown

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters
Oil on wood
The Harvesters
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Oil on wood, 1565
Owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I stumbled upon this painting from a reference in an NPR podcast discussing a mythical First Job. This podcast had an interesting premise … trying to find the actual first modern job. While the painting is exquisite, it apparently does not fit the definition of a modern job, in large part because the workers lack choice in occupation and the work is not continuous, i.e. it is at the whim of the owner and the weather. But more on that in a later blog.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Dutch Renaissance Master, painting in the mid 16th century. Bruegel’s The Harvesters is part of a series depicting the harvest season. Considered an early example of the humanist movement, the painting is a rendering based upon direct observation … a “snapshot” of humans in their daily lives and activities. We see an array of individuals at work (although not at a job, according to NPR’s podcasters), engaged in the activity of using tools (a scythe and a sickel) to cut down the crop, while another group is actively bundling the crop for harvest. Classic Adam Smith at work here … specialization of task, and in this case divided along gender lines; men wield the tools of the trade, while the women gather and organize.

And, of course, we see the obligatory slackers (who outnumber the active workers!) engaged in an early form of social loafing. For those looking for symbolic representation of humans and their work, there is plenty of content here to illustrate many facets of work, all framed (sorry for the pun) in a classic work of a master.

You can find more about the painting at Wikimedia and from the Met’s online exhibit.
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Oil on canvas, 1857
Owned by Saint Louis Art Museum

Bingham was an American artist who painted in the luminosity style. Much like impressionism, luminists played with the effect of light in their paintings. This is quite evident in Jolly Flatboatmen, as we see the counterpaly of bright fading light and shadow on the flatboatmen at the end of the day.

Workers and river life on the Mississippi were frequent subjects for Bingham’s genre paintings. He has been described as fascinated by the life on the Mississippi and the river tradesman that plied its water and roamed its docks and piers. Here we see the flatboatmen docked after a day of work, some celebrating, some smoking, some drinking. This subject neatly captures the transformation of work in America as the Industrial Revolution gained steam. Providing more jobs as material plied the Mississippi, the flatboatmen are flamboyantly celebrating their good fortune and a good day’s work. Yet, as silently as the river’s current, change comes as the revolution rolls on. The painting evokes a sense of gaiety and relaxation in the front, but shadows pull our eyes to the specter of the steamboat in the background … and the fading of the flatboatmen’s trade.

You can find more about the painting at Wikimedia and from the SLAM’s online gallery.
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George Caleb Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen in Port
Oil on canvas, 1857
Jolly Flatboatmen in Port
George Caleb Bingham

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Telemaco Signiorini’s The Riverbank
Oil on canvas, 1864
L’aizaia (The Riverbank)
Telemaco Signiorini
Oil on canvas, 1864
Ownership unknown

SIgniorini was an Italian artist, painting in the late nineteenth century. He started his art training in landscapes, and his training is evident in the open use of space and depth in The Riverbank. Five workers in the foreground strain to pull a heavy weight (thought by some to be a barge of coal), unseen but clearly taxing. Their efforts are shown as asymmetrical, framed against the landscape in the background and the figures enjoying a leisurely stroll to the left. Hard work, front and center.

The interesting juxtaposition is the continuing need for manual labor during the industrial revolution and the struggle (physically and metaphorically) of labor to feed the very system that will transform their jobs. The coal is needed to fire the factories, but it has yet to transform transportation … leaving a taxing, but rewarding, job for these laborers …for the time being. You can sense it coming, can’t you? Just out of the frame, catching the workers from behind. Coming from behind as they struggle toward the beckoning life of leisure ahead.

SIgniorini is best known as an early member of the Macchaioli, an Italian group of painters who sought to break from traditional modes of painting. They are described as interested in capturing the outside world and in using natural light to advantage in their paintings. In this vein, the Macchaioli and Signiorini are seen as predecessors to the more famous Impressionists that were to arise in France.

You can find more about the painting at Wikimedia, and more about Signiorini here.
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Oil on composition board, 1857
Owned by The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Here the ‘saint’ is a worker, cast not as a burly laborer, but as an ordinary man.

This is how the Renwick Gallery describes Sharrer’s most famous work, an epic ode to workers and laborers. Sharrer was described by the New York Times as having used figurative art for social criticism. In Tribute, we see Sharrer using the motif of a religious altar panel to hi-lite the worker at ease in front of a factory, his coworkers visible in the windows. With his coworkers inside the factory, we see the central figure, an older man, as if contemplating his life outside the factory.

It is almost as if Sharrer was trying to evoke the struggle with what we know today as the search for work-life balance. With the backdrop of the factory, the worker is framed by his life away from work … at home, at the fair, his children at school. It’s almost as if he is locked in a frame, close to but unable to reach, the other aspects of his home life.

But perhaps I read too much into the painting. It is, in an any event, a classic piece of American art. Drawing on her experience as a welder during WWII, Sharrer does a masterful job of framing the figurative balance between our work personna and our home personna; whether we need to leave our home personality behind when we step through the factory gates.

You can read more about Sharrer at this informative Wikipedia entry. The New York Times provides an eloquent discussion of Sharrer and her work here.
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Honoré Sharrer’s Tribute to the American Working People
Oil on composition board, 1951
Tribute to the American Working People
Honoré Sharrer

Men Working
Stevan Dohanos’ Men Working
Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, 1947
Men Working
Stevan Dohanos
Illustration, 1947
Cover Art for the 4/12/47 edition of The Saturday Evening Post

Strongly influenced by Hopper, Dohanos was an American Realist best known for his magazine illustrations and mural work. His mural work arose from the WPA Federal Arts Project during the Great Depression. His Depression-era experiences informed mush of his work, but his illustrations for the Post offer a more intriguing look at American work and life after WWII.

Men Working is just one of his more than 100 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. The sign painter’s workspace is rendered in vivid, realistic detail, but with a subtle image within the detail. Here, we capture the “worker” not working … maybe just a quick nap. Sure, there’s plenty of work to be done, but break time is, after all, break time! You can almost see the wink in Doha’s’ eye as he finishes a painting of a man at work, but not too hard at work.

You can find more about Doha’s’ work at Wikipedia, and a bit about the illustrations of work in The Saturday Evening Post here.
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