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Past and Present: Harry Sternberg

jimmywayne / Flickr

In 1936, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded graphic artist Harry Sternberg one of its prestigious fellowships to study and portray the lives of the American worker.

Sternberg was a social realist who used his art as a way to communicate his unease with the social, political and economic crises of the 20th century. Sternberg believed that by depicting workers’ lives in the coal mines and steel mills of western Pennsylvania he would be able to show all Americans the desperate state of working conditions that helped sustain their new, modern America during the Great Depression.

Affecting economies and nations worldwide, the Depression left nearly 20 percent of U.S. workers unemployed, and stocks lost 90 percent of their value while the overall economy shrunk by 33 percent in a matter of three years. While federal politicians attempted to solve the economic crisis through the large federal programs of the New Deal, Sternberg believed that artists could use their work to shine a light on the darker realities of the everyday lives of the downtrodden and working class.

Initially, Sternberg wanted to capture a romanticized portrait of workers and their families in order to gain the public’s sympathy. But after only a few weeks of living-- and, at times, working-- among the coal and steel workers, Sternberg realized that their lives did not need a romantic take, but a realistic portrayal of the true dangers of their working and living environments.

Between 1936 and 1938, Sternberg produced dozens of prints of coal and steel workers. In these pieces, he depicts the daily struggles both above and below ground, shrinking the largeness of the economic crisis down to a human scale.

A Passionate Idea: Social Justice and the work of Harry Sternberg is on view at Wichita State University's Ulrich Museum of Art through August 18.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.