Automobile Industry (mural study, Detroit, Michigan Post Office)

Media - 1971.2 - SAAM-1971.2_1 - 3840
Copied William Gropper, Automobile Industry (mural study, Detroit, Michigan Post Office), 1940-1941, oil on fiberboard, 18 7846 58 in. (48.0118.4 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum acquisition, 1971.2

Artwork Details

Automobile Industry (mural study, Detroit, Michigan Post Office)
Not on view
18 7846 58 in. (48.0118.4 cm)
back lower right stamped and burned: Johns Manville Tempera (illegible) Board
Credit Line
Museum acquisition
Mediums Description
oil on fiberboard
  • Group
  • Figure group — male
  • Study — mural study
  • Occupation — industry — automotive
  • New Deal — Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture — Michigan
  • Landscape — Michigan — Detroit
  • Architecture Interior — industry — factory
Object Number

Artwork Description

These workers look like parts of a well-oiled machine as each man lends his strength to the task of building an automobile, the chief source of wages for the people of Detroit. William Gropper structured the composition so that the angles of the men's muscular bodies echo the steel beams overhead. He didn't paint the figures from life and instead used photographs of Life magazine together with his own imagination. The artist took pride in his commissions for the Works Progress Administration and believed that, like the workers shown in this mural, he was a valuable member of a working class intent on rebuilding the nation after the Depression. He wrote to officials at the Treasury Department thanking them for "a great pleasure and stimulant" and vowing that "we will continue to do our part in building a great American Art and Culture" (Gropper to Edward Rowan, June 5, 1941, SAAM curatorial file). This mural along with its pair was installed in the Northwestern Branch Post Office in Detroit, Michigan, in 1941, where it remained until 1971. At that time the post office was scheduled to be demolished and Wayne State University in Detroit rescued the paintings, bringing a conservator to carefully remove them from the permanent white lead adhesive. They removed plaster from the back and old varnish from the front and placed the murals side by side on view in the university's Student Center lounge, where you can still see them today.