Artist: Maynard Dixon
Commentary by Brian Q. Cannon
Director, Charles Redd Center
Associate Professor of History
In the depths of the Great Depression, one in four American workers was unemployed. The nation’s Gross National Product fell by 70 percent in constant dollars between 1929 and 1932 and one-fifth of the nation’s banks closed their doors. As historian Larry Levine has observed, Americans reacted to job loss and poverty with “pervasive bewilderment” and “feelings of shame.” Some lost faith in the American Dream but many more lost confidence in themselves. Nathan Ackerman, a psychiatrist in Pennsylvania mining towns where unemployment was rampant, discovered that jobless men “were ashamed of themselves. . . . They were loath to go home because they were indicted, as if it were there fault for being unemployed. A jobless man was a lazy, good-for-nothing. . . . These men suffered from depression.”
Prior to the Great Depression artist Maynard Dixon had specialized in expansive southwestern landscapes and scenes from the Old West. But his wife Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the unemployed in San Francisco, as well as Dixon’s own observations of suffering on the city’s streets and sidewalks, impelled him to portray the struggles of the working class in his paintings. In 1935 he explained, “Like other artists, I had dodged the responsibility of facing social conditions. The depression woke me up to the fact that I had a part in all this, as an artist.”
Shortly before he painted Forgotten Man, Dixon roamed San Francisco’s Embarcadero area during the Longshoremen’s Strike of 1934, sketching police, striking longshoremen and strikebreakers. His sympathies were with the working man, particularly after a July 5 melee in which police killed two of the strikers and shot at or clubbed dozens of others. In a series of paintings completed in 1934 Dixon documented the strike itself and the despair of the unemployed. In Forgotten Man he portrayed the jobless sympathetically. Dixon’s down-and-out man possesses no hint of moral dereliction, no bottle of booze on slovenly appearance. Hair combed back and neatly dressed, he gazes forlornly downward as the impersonal tide of humanity passes by on the sidewalk oblivious to his plight. The painting conveys his sense his bewilderment and perhaps his loss of faith in himself and humanity.
Dixon exhibited his social realist paintings including Forgotten Man at the San Francisco Artist’s Cooperative Gallery in October 1934. The exhibit attracted favorable attention in the press and the public. But art critics in the Bay Area ignored the paintings and no buyers stepped forward. The magazine Survey Graphic reproduced three of Dixon’s realist paintings including Forgotten Man in February 1937. Soon afterwards, Dixon sold Forgotten Man and 84 other paintings to Brigham Young University through the instrumentality of a friend, Herald R. Clark, who was Dean of the School of Business at the Y. The paintings sold for $3,700–about $58,000 in today’s money.
Return to Gallery Selected Sources:
Lawrence W. Levine, “American Culture and the Great Depression,” The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History, ed. Lawrence W. Levine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 210, 213, 216.
John Alan Walker, Maynard Dixon, 1875-1946: An Unauthorized Contribution Towards a Catalogue Raisonne, with Emphasis on Bibliography (Big Pine, CA: John Alan Walker, 1988), 22.
Donald J. Hagerty, The Life of Maynard Dixon (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010), 198-99; Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 104-8.