Whether in paintings or prints, twentieth-century Social Realist Harry Sternberg expressed strong humanist values and the desire to expose social injustice.
Table of Contents
Harry Sternberg was born on July 19, 1904 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father, Simon Sternberg, was a dealer in fur garments who immigrated to New York from Russia. Sternberg’s mother, Rosalia, was an immigrant from Hungary. In 1910, Simon and Rosalia moved to Brooklyn, with Harry and his eight older siblings. When Harry was 9, he began to take free art classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Though Sternberg credits his Jewish upbringing and lively home life to have been full of excitement, he often found the noise distracting and disrupting. The young artist had other priorities, stating “All I wanted to do was draw and read.” As a result he sought out the public library in Brooklyn and relished in the peace and learning that went on inside. Sternberg compared the institution to “…a temple, like a synagogue.”
Sternberg’s interest in music and art was nourished by his friendship with teacher, Harry Wickey. Sternberg once stated, “I had never heard classical music at home-any music-and my first teacher, Harry Wickey, decided to educate me, and he’d come every Friday …”. Wickey was a printmaker and ignited Sternberg’s interest in the art form. With Wickey’s encouragement, he began printmaking as well as making presses and selling them. Sternberg credits Wickey as his “first teacher” and someone who was “trying very seriously to educate me.” Hungry to learn, Sternberg devoured the knowledge.
In 1922, Sternberg began his studies at the Art Students League in New York. He paid for tuition by working part time at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. At his first job, Sternberg earned funds to pay for his education and obtained valuable life lessons from members of the church about philosophy, history, literature and religion.
Fresh out of art school, Sternberg moved into a studio in New York City in 1926. The artist spent a couple of years making prints and learning techniques of the trade. Once his portfolio was developed, he took it to Fredrick R. Keppel and Company, one of the finest print dealers in the city. The gallery gave him a show in 1928, Sternberg’s first big breakthrough. Through Keppel’s he met Carl Zigrosser, an important gallery owner who showed enthusiasm and interest in Sternberg’s work. Carl gave him a show and acted as a major influence in the cementing of Sternberg’s career as a printmaker.
In 1933, Sternberg was appointed to the staff of the Art Students League of New York. He would continue his position there as an instructor, two days a week, for the next 35 years. His strength as a teacher lay in a remarkable ability to get his students to trust their personal instincts. While maintaining his position as a fine printmaker, Sternberg began to paint murals commissioned by the United States Department of the Treasury Section of Fine Arts. Multiple examples of these murals currently exist in United States Postal Offices. In 1939, Sternberg married Mary Gosney with whom he would later have one daughter, Leslie Louise Sternberg.
Later in his career, the artist began to show paintings. Sternberg first showed his paintings in 1943 in a one-man exhibition at the ACA Gallery. The politically left-oriented gallery allowed him to focus on statements in his work and aided in Sternberg’s smooth transition of incorporating paintings into his range of compositions. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York also contributed to Sternberg’s success as a painter. The Whitney picked one of his paintings for their first show at the museum’s new location on 8th Street, a proud accomplishment for the artist.
In 1966, Sternberg retired from the Art Students League and moved to Escondido, California. For thirty-five years, he continued to work as an artist creating prints, paintings and woodcuts. He was given a major retrospective exhibition in 2001 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, California. Later that same year, Sternberg passed away on November 27th; he was 97 years old.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“…it’s only when something is terribly important that great art is produced.”
As an acclaimed member of a generation of American artists devoted to exposing social injustices, Harry Sternberg painted many important, great works of art. Sternberg was one of the great advocates of twentieth-century Social Realism. He worked with themes such as the nobility of labor, the despair of unemployment and the de-humanizing aspect of industrial labor. The artist’s prints and paintings addressed the labor movement, the war against fascism, and racial injustice. Sternberg’s level of dedication to the issues he used as inspiration ran parallel with his commitment to producing meaningful art.
On Sternberg’s travels to industrial cities like Chicago, he would spend months painting laborers, working under terrible conditions. His passion and empathy for these workers provoked Sternberg to join them in fighting for fair treatment. During the Depression, he captured the struggles faced in New York City. Subway construction, the building of Rockefeller Center, apartments filled to the brim with city dwellers; he stood in the middle of it and watched, translating his visions onto paper. Visits to the Deep South provoked fury, rage and disgust in the artist. Racist atrocities were a powerful, symbolic theme he used, displaying in prints and paintings, what he considered to be the decaying culture of the South. Much of his work done during these visits to the South in the thirties and forties has a Goya-like sense of unspeakable brutality. The artist had an extreme, yet simple and direct way of depicting problems in the South.
Collectively, the artist’s work can be seen as rooted in an underlying sense of humanity and justice. He was intent on expressing strong humanistic values. As a result, he centered his work on the conspicuous realities of life. For seventeen years he contributed work to the leftist magazine, New Masses, which acted as a means for distribution of his critical social evaluations. Much of Sternberg’s work displays an allegorical mode of social critique. An example of this is a series of paintings done by the artist that incorporated injustices of the law. A painting titled Just Ice displays a group of Supreme Court judges on an ice field, some sinking in. The loaded image was used in law journals around the United States, further cementing Sternberg as an artist and social activist.
Direct observation and self-immersion in coal mining villages allowed Sternberg to develop a style of straightforward realism. In his drawings and prints of coal miners done in the thirties, Sternberg uses beautiful, deep black tones, reflecting the physical environment of the mines as well as the emotional environment. The inevitable blackness encountered by coal miners hundreds of feet below the surface, was described by Sternberg as “disconcerting”, as though one is caught and completely engulfed in the dark. Miners came up from shifts depressed, hungry, angry and covered in black. Sternberg experienced it with them first-hand during his studies and displays great empathy in his prints created during this time. The graphic images created by the artist aimed to point out the dangers and outcomes of working in mines. They were images that served as a plea for reform.
Although Sternberg strongly conveyed left-wing political and social messages in his work, esthetic content was always put first. He was diligently committed to the visual outcome of his prints. He saw printmaking as “a dialogue between me and the plate.” The unforgiving process requires feedback and multiple attempts before creating a finished product. Sternberg did little preparatory work, primarily rough sketches on the plates’ surface. His compositions would then grow and change as he worked. Unlike drawing, one cannot throw away work with the same ease or peace of mind, and erasing is almost impossible. The extended process of printmaking was an exciting dialogue for the artist. To Sternberg’s delight, exchange between artist and plate provided him with a constant battle and challenge. He enjoyed the fight against the plate just as much as he enjoyed the fight for social justice.
1904 Born on July 19 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, NY
1910 Moves with his parents and siblings to Brooklyn
1915 Began to take art classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
1922-1926 Studied at the Art Students League of New York
1926 Moved to Greenwich Village, began his career in etching, printmaking and painting
1928 Professional career began with first consignment of prints with art dealer Frederick Keppel in New York
1933-1967 Teaches at the Art Students League of New York
1934 Meets Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, becomes more politically active in union and socialist causes
1935 Appointed a technical advisor to the Graphic Art Division, Federal Art Project (FAP)
1936 Awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship; spent a year studying working conditions in coal mines and steel mills
1936 Spoke at the First American Artists’ Congress
1937 Paints his first post office mural in Pennsylvania
1937 Travels to Chicago and studies the city’s history, industry, workers and architecture
1939 Marries Mary Gosney
1957 Made his first trip to the West Coast
1957-1958 Taught in the summers at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT
1966 Retired from the Arts Students League and moved to Escondido, CA
1990 Collaborates on a book with his wife, “Short Shorts”
2001 Died on November 27, in Escondido, CA
Ambler Post Office, PA (mural)
Chester Post Office, PA (mural)
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
The Fogg Museum at Harvard University
The Hoehn Collection of Prints at the University of San Diego
Lakeview Post Office, PA (mural)
New York Public Library
Northwestern University, IL
Sellersville Post Office, PA (mural)
Smithsonian American Art Museum
United States Library of Congress
The Whitney Museum of American Art
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
Art Institute of Chicago
1928 Brooklyn Society of Etchers
1931, 1933-53, 1999 The Whitney Museum of American Art
1932-1934, 1938 Fifty Modern Prints
1939, 1946, 1949 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1943-1974 ACA Galleries
1975 Wichita State University
1976 University of Minnesota
1980 Minnesota Museum of Art
1983 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1987 The National Academy of Design, NY
1990 Worcester Art Museum, MA
1992 The Jewish Museum, NY
1993, 1999 Susan Teller Gallery, NY
1994, 2002 San Diego Museum of Art, CA
1997 Musee-galerie de la Seita, Paris
1999 Allentown Art Museum, PA
2000 Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
2001 California Center for the Arts, Escondido, CA
2002 National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.
2003 Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
American Artists’ Congress
Artists Equity, the Society of American Graphic Artists and the National Academy of Design
Art Students League of America
National Academy of Design
Society of American Graphic Artists
United American Artists
First Prize, The Print Club of Philadelphia
Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship
1972 Purchase Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, NY
- 1. Campbell, Lawrence. Harry Sternberg at Susan Teller-New York, New York. Art in America, 1993.
- 2. Harry Sternberg. International Fine Print Dealers Association. Retrieved Oct. 4, 2007.
- 3. Harry Sternberg, 97, Muralist and Printmaker. The New York Times. Dec. 4, 2001.
- 4. Ollman, Leah. Harry Sternberg at the California Center for the Arts Museum. Art in America, 2001.
- 5. A Tribute to Harry Sternberg (1904-2001). San Diego: San Diego Museum of Art, 2001.
- 6. Yard, Sally. Interview with Harry Sternberg. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. March 19 and Oct. 8, 1999 and Jan. 7, 2000.
IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST