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Painting the Strike

Action in Brush Strokes

Apr. 11, 2011
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Robert Koehler was an accomplished 19th century artist with a trans-Atlantic career. Born in working class Hamburg, his family arrived in Milwaukee in 1854 where his father founded a small machine shop. Koehler attended Munich's Royal Academy and returned to America after graduation but went back to Munich for a long sojourn. He achieved the American Dream of social mobility in Germany, married well and enjoyed a successful career as a painter of everyday scenes, including deeply observed character studies in a fairly traditional style. Eventually Koehler moved back to the Midwest accepting a position at Minneapolis' School of Fine Arts.

The life of this talented if only little remembered artist provides the background for James M. Dennis' close examination of one particular painting, The Strike: The Improbable Story of an Iconic 1886 Painting of Labor Protest (University of Wisconsin Press). Simply called The Strike, Koehler's painting had great resonance in its time and was first exhibited just before Chicago's Haymarket riot, an infamous chapter in the struggle for organized labor.

The Strike illustrated no particular incident but struck an almost universal chord at the time by giving a human face to all parties. An industrialist in his silk top hat reluctantly agrees to meet the angry workmen on the steps of his office as his clerk visibly cringes in the background. The women and children of the mill gaze on with hopeful expressions as the men prepare to argue their point. Dennis, professor emeritus of art history at UW-Madison, places the painting in the context of contemporary depictions of labor unrest, including vicious anti-union editorial etchings. Well researched and written to be read by the general public, Dennis' monograph also explores the uses to which Koehler's powerful image have been put as an iconic symbol of organized labor.

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