Robert Gwathmey, The Hitchhiker, a colour screenprint

United States of America, 1937

Robert Gwathmey (1903–1988) was born in Richmond, Virginia to a family that had lived in the state for eight generations. He was shocked at the treatment the African Americans received in Virginia and the Southern states and their poverty and oppression informed the social content of his paintings and screenprints of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Hitchhiker was his first screenprint. The unemployed men shown here are itinerants hitching rides in search of work during the Depression. The roadside billboards of show girls with toothpaste smiles and appetizing lobsters stand in mocking contrast.

Gwathmey took up screenprinting in the late 1930s as a suitable technique for translating the flat colour and black outline of his socially conscious paintings. He was one of many American artists to exploit the artistic possibilities of screenprinting at this time. Printmaking was encouraged through the Graphic Arts Division set up by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration as part of the US government’s national reconstruction programme from 1935 to 1943.

Gwathmey’s career as a printmaker was intermittent: he made only 26 prints, of which the first 12 were screenprints produced between 1937 and 1954, the key period of his career.

R.W. Williams, "The Prints of Robert Gwathmey" in Hot off the Press: Prints and Politics, vol.15 in the Tamarind Papers (1994)

M. Kammen, Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer (Chapel Hill and London, The University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

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Image: © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2007

Height: 42.8 cm
Width: 33.2 cm

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