The University of Wisconsin Press

Art / American Studies / History

Robert Koehler’s The Strike
The Improbable Story of an Iconic 1886 Painting of Labor Protest
James M. Dennis

Studies in American Thought and Culture
Paul S. Boyer,Series Editor

“A fascinating study of an artist and the fate of his most renowned painting. . . . Clear and readable . . . it takes on the character of a cultural mystery.”
—Lewis Erenberg, author of The Greatest Fight of Our Generation

Every work of art has a story behind it. In 1886 the German American artist Robert Koehler painted a dramatic wide-angle depiction of an imagined confrontation between factory workers and their employer. He called this oil painting The Strike. It has had a long and tumultuous international history as a symbol of class struggle and the cause of workers’ rights. First exhibited just days before the tragic Chicago Haymarket riot, The Strike became an inspiration for the labor movement. In the midst of the campaign for an eight-hour workday, it gained international attention at expositions in Paris, Munich, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Though the painting fell into obscurity for decades in the early twentieth century, The Strike lived on in wood-engraved reproductions in labor publications. Its purchase, restoration, and exhibition by New Left activist Lee Baxandall in the early 1970s launched it to international fame once more, and collectors and galleries around the world scrambled to acquire it. It is now housed in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Art historian James M. Dennis has crafted a compelling “biography” of Koehler’s painting: its exhibitions, acclaim, neglect, and rediscovery. He introduces its German-born creator and politically diverse audiences and traces the painting’s acceptance and rejection through the years, exploring how class and sociopolitical movements affected its reception. Dennis considers the significance of key figures in the painting, such as the woman asserting her presence in the center of action. He compellingly explains why The Strike has earned its identity as the iconic painting of the industrial labor movement.

James M. Dennis
is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is author of Karl Bitter, Architectural Sculptor, 1867–1915; Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture; and Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry as well as catalog essays for the traveling exhibitions Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed and Grant Wood’s Studio, Birthplace of American Gothic.

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The cover of Dennis's book about Koehler's painting, The Strike, shows a detail of the painting. Several working are confronting the factory owner on the steps of an expensive house or office. In the foreground a working-class mother with two children looks on with a worried expression.

April 2011
LC: 2010038903 ND
176 pp.   9 1/2 x 8
8 color illus., 68 b/w illus.

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Paper $24.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-25134-5
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"Path-breaking in its conception and innovative in its approach to the intersection of art, class, and culture.”
—James Lorence, author of The Unemployed People’s Movement

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