Glimmers of real life put to striking use

Bowdoin College Museum of Art

BRUNSWICK, Maine - The American artist Robert Henri painted this moody, penumbral image in his New York studio in 1902, the day after a train he was on had stopped beside a coal processing plant in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. It is called “Coal Breaker,’’ and it’s on display at Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

There was a major coal strike in Pennsylvania that year. It had begun two months before Henri stopped at Wilkes-Barre, and continued on for another three months.

Workers were asking for higher pay, fewer hours. The owners were loath to negotiate with them. In fact, they welcomed the strike: Prices had been depressed because of an oversupply of coal, and a strike would reduce supply and therefore increase prices again.


Eventually, faced with the prospect of thousands of people freezing through winter, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, a deal was struck, and work went on.

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Henri must have been conscious of all this when he passed through Wilkes-Barre. The strike may even have played a part in his decision to make the painting.

But strikes are short and art is long, and what forces our interest about the picture today is its crepuscular mood. The gloaming here meets pure gloom. Working quickly and with a loaded brush, Henri shows us these utilitarian, asymmetrical, oddly fragile structures, poignantly silhouetted against a dying sky - half luminous, half sooty - and looming over a verdant landscape.

Henri, who was the leading figure of America’s Ashcan School, was interested in life. “Paint what you feel,’’ he implored. “Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you.’’

In the midst of the strike, in one of those irksome utterances guaranteed to galvanize opposition, George Baer, a lawyer who was a spokesman for the owners, revealed his own tenuous connection to life when he wrote that the “rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for - not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.’’


The rhetoric of the strikers may well have been equally divorced from life as it is lived. The point is that politics, at least as it takes place in public discourse, contains nothing like the quota of reality Henri (1865-1929) routinely stuffed into his heartfelt paintings.

What Henri shows here is grittily real, and on intimate terms with life. Those gauche and gangly structures bend and bow; they strain under the pressures of actual existence. The drab scene over which they tower is perforated by human presences, pinpricks of color, evening susurrations . . .

Sebastian Smee can be reached at