The life of workers immortalised by great painters

In honor of the International Workers’ Day that celebrates workers from all over the world, here is a selection of paintings that represent the workers, their working days, their labors, their fights, but also their moments of rest and leisure.

The Detroit Industry mural by Diego Rivera

Let’s get to the heart of the topic with a defender of the workers, legendary artist and political activist: Diego Rivera. Over the course of his career, the Latin American painter created several huge murals, which focused the attention on the history of Mexico and civil rights. One of these is Detroit Industry, 1932 – 1933, stored at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The artist arrived in Detroit between 1932 – 1933 just to design this impressive artwork consisting of twenty-seven panels.

The majestic fresco, which took about a year of work, was commissioned by the American Edsel Ford – son of Henry Ford – who let him completely free to express himself. This allowed the Mexican artist to portray the city and its inhabitants in perfect symbiosis with the machines of the factories, creating a tribute to the city and a wonderful example of Mexican mural art.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry mural, north wall, 1932-1933, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit. 

The peasants of Vincent Van Gogh

At the Musée d’Orsay in Paris there is The siesta by Vincent Van Gogh, a tribute not only to the life and the hard work of the peasants, but also to the talent of an artist that Van Gogh admired, that is Jean-François Millet.

The scene, loosely based on Millet’s original drawing, depicts two peasants, exhausted from hard work, who rest in peace and quiet before restarting their hard work activities in the fields. In the distance, there is a man who is still working and can’t rest, trying to prepare a cart and the oxen. If you look closely at the quick strokes made by Van Gogh, you can almost feel the wind that caresses the grass and the clothes of the protagonists.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Siesta,  1889 – 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The Gleaners by Millet

Even Jean-François Millet, who we just mentioned, portrayed the field work. The French artist loved to portray farmers’ life, in fact we could say that it was one of his favorite subjects. One of his most famous example is the painting The Gleaners, in which three women are bowed picking up, one by one, the grain left on the ground after reaping. The three protagonists are portrayed by Millet in their humble situation, but what he really tries to underline is a sense of deep greatness and dignity.

Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The Fourth Estate: an icon of workers

Of course, we can’t forget The Fourth Estate, a true icon of the workers’ social-political fights. The famous painting is an artwork by the Piedmont Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo and it represents a crowd of men and women who march together for their rights. Because of the strength of its message, even today, more than a century later, this artwork helps us not to forget the importance of fighting for equality, democracy and peace.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, The Fourth Estate,  1901, Museo del Novecento, Milan.

The perfect day-off: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Work is important, but rest and free time are important too. That’s why we want to end this journey with a bit of relax! A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, in addition to being the most important artwork by Georges Seurat, is also considered a leading example of pointillist technique. In order to create his great masterpiece, a really large canvas, Seurat went to the little island of Grande Jatte for months, to study one of Parisian’s favorite places.

In the pianting we see men and women walking on the grass, children playing and other figures enjoying their rest under the trees. On this beautiful island, made of trees and yards, many Parisians spent their free time in quiet and peace. A perfect place, masterfully represented by the neo-Impressionist art of Georges Seurat, where enjoy those moments of rest and finally break away from the frenzy of the daily working routine.

Georges Seurat,  A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.