Maurice Becker (1889-1975) was a Russian-born artist whose visually striking illustrations for some of America’s most politically progressive magazines, as well as his expressive modernist paintings and watercolors, forged his reputation as a consequential figure in the rapidly transforming art world of early twentieth century America.
Born in Nizhny-Novgorad, one of Russia’s largest and most historic cities (its origins date to 1221 A.D.), Becker came from a Jewish ethnic background, with both his father and grandfather serving in the Russian Army. Facing an atmosphere of Czarist oppression and the constant threat of pogroms, Becker’s family emigrated to the United States in 1892, settling in the bustling immigrant enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Following the death of Becker’s mother in 1905, his father, a tailor, took sole responsibility for raising Maurice and four other children, including Maurice’s brother Sam, who became a sculptor, and sister Helen, who would later change her last name to Tamiris (the name of an Amazonian queen) en route to establishing a groundbreaking career as a modern dancer and award-winning Broadway choreographer, with her work (like Maurice’s) often serving as an agent for social change. Maurice was educated in New York City public schools, first Commercial High School and then Evening High School, transferring to the latter so he could work during the day in a garment factory and a Wall Street newsstand. While in high school he took his first class in drawing, working in pencil and charcoal from plaster casts, and once a week from live models. Recognizing Maurice’s innate talent, his instructor suggested that he enroll in classes taught by Robert Henri, a painter and highly influential teacher (and pupil of Thomas Anshutz) credited with being the leading force behind the emergence of the “Ashcan School of American Art,” a pivotal artistic movement of the early twentieth century featuring (with some exceptions) gritty, realistic portrayals of everyday life, often in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Henri and his group of friends and proteges challenged the primacy of the conservative exhibition policies of the powerful National Academy of Design with a landmark exhibition at New York City’s Macbeth Galleries in 1908; simply titled “The Eight," the exhibition's name reflected the number of artists joining Henri in his call for freedom and independence in the creative process. That same year Becker became an evening student of Henri’s, working during the day in a variety of jobs: newsboy, advertising agency office boy, Wall Street telephone operator, and clerk in a large brokerage house; for a short time he found employment in a theatrical poster shop, where, he would explain later, he had mistakenly hoped “in (his) innocence to learn about fine commercial art.” Eventually Becker would come to meet two artists in Henri’s evening class whose daily jobs consisted of painting signs from scaffolds on 15-story buildings and along railroad tracks. Following suit, he took a job as a $3 per day assistant sign painter, ultimately working his way up to painting figures and lettering. Beginning in 1910, Becker’s formal education in art was augmented by instruction from the painter Homer Boss, who had joined Henri’s staff following Henri formally opening his own academy, the Henri School of Art, in midtown Manhattan. Boss, who himself had studied with Henri (as well as with the renowned American impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase), would later earn recognition for his dreamlike expressionist landscapes of the American Southwestern desert, and as a teacher who granted his students much creative freedom (as Henri did), expanding their artistic horizons with summertime en plein air excursions to the coast of Maine. In 1912, while still a student at the school, Becker met Rockwell Kent, a former pupil of Henri’s whose series of paintings composed on Maine’s Monhegan Island in 1905 had drawn wide critical acclaim upon their exhibition at the Clausen Galleries in New York City. Often dropping in on Henri’s classes, Kent would occasionally accompany Becker on the walk home from the school’s location at Broadway and West 66th Street. (For Becker, walking several miles back to the Lower East Side enabled him to save the nickel subway fare.) One such evening Kent reputedly told Becker, “A man who draws as well as you do ought to be drawing for The Masses,” a magazine to which Kent was already contributing, and which, under the leadership of radical intellectual and former Columbia University professor Max Eastman, had established itself as the flagship journal of the burgeoning bohemian art community of Greenwich Village, and is today recognized as the most graphically innovative magazine of its time. The Masses staked out highly progressive positions on issues such as unionization, freedom of speech, racial equality, women’s suffrage, and the issue that would eventually lead to its demise in 1917 at the hands of the U.S. government: vehement opposition to the First World War. Mixing no-holds-barred investigative reporting with provocative literary and visual art, the magazine featured the work of some of the era’s most dynamic and forward-thinking American writers, poets, and journalists — including Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, and John Reed (whose Ten Days That Shook The World originally appeared as a series of articles in The Masses) — in conjunction with the urban realist drawings, figure studies, and scathing political cartoons by such contemporaneously prominent artists and illustrators as George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Robert Minor, Art Young, and Boardman Robinson. Taking Rockwell Kent’s advice, and mindful of the idea that the Masses' conceptual design allowed artists to express themselves unimpeded by the type of considerations controlling “commercial” magazines, Becker approached The Masses’ official arts editor, John Sloan (a member of Henri’s seminal group of 1908 exhibitors, “The Eight”), and soon became a major contributor to the magazine, with his work often featured on the cover. (By December 1912, Becker was listed as a Contributing Art Editor.) Early on in Becker’s association with The Masses, the reproduction of one of his sketches — a charcoal drawing featuring the head of a dog superimposed on a page of newspaper — was published in the magazine. Effectively a work of modern art, which at that point in time in American art circles was still considered stylistically transgressive, the original drawing was chosen for representation at the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York City (making Becker, at the age of 24, one of its youngest contributors). The show, whose formal name was the “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” is consensually viewed today as a critical turning point in the development of American art, introducing to Americans accustomed to Realism what were then the experimental styles of the European avant-garde, such as Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism. For the first time in America, the work of artists now associated with the classical canon was mounted together in a group show, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Van Gogh. In the show’s consequential aftermath many American artists felt compelled to break free of longstanding stylistic barriers, a “revolution” questioning the 19th century’s artistic world-view. (Marcel Duchamp, in a 1963 interview, said that the show amounted to a “reordering of the rules of art-making, as big as we’ve seen since the Renaissance.”) Of the American artists whose work was chosen for display in the show, several were Becker’s colleagues, including Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows, and Stuart Davis. The Masses’ editor-in-chief, Max Eastman, would later use the magazine’s pages for a critical assessment of Becker’s contribution to the show: “For those who see it, this is a true, intimate, and final picture of a certain dog, sketched with unerring loyalty to the eye, and sketched, moreover, with living sympathy and emotion. For those who see it, it is exquisite.”
Over the course of his association with The Masses — a period encompassing the years 1912-1916 — Becker produced numerous illustrations of lasting import, many of them artistic indictments of the period’s endemic social and economic injustices. In its review of a book based on a 1985 Yale University exhibition of the same name, “Art for the Masses: A Radical Magazine and its Graphics,” Publishers Weekly stated that “the standouts in this intriguingly illustrated study are Robert Minor and Maurice Becker, whose timeless protest images, blazing with raw power, would enliven the pages of any newspaper editorial page today.” The images produced by Becker, gleaned from a childhood spent amidst brutally unregulated sweatshops and the entrenched poverty of the ghetto, often explored the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, with an early evocation of this theme appearing in the March 1913 issue (accompanied by a Max Eastman essay), in which Becker offered commentary on a recent court decision prohibiting workers from picketing in front of the workplace (the issue having arisen from a strike for higher wages and safer conditions by over 200,000 mostly female workers in knitting factories). Becker’s drawing depicts a crowd of women massed on the street, with a policeman warning one of them, “Now you git out o’ here, young lady, or you’ll land in the workhouse!” (the name for a prison which held people convicted of minor transgressions), to which the woman replies, “I ain’t afraid of the workhouse. I’ve been in a workhouse ever since I started to work!” The visual intensity of Becker’s allegorical political art, as well as his proclivity for framing complex moral questions in artistic form, was evidenced in “When Striking is Treason,” from the July 1916 issue, in which a group of striking workers stands impassively against a wall while their employer tells the strikers’ sons (who are standing nearby with guns), to unquestioningly “Put a little lead in ’em.” Moreover, in one of Becker’s most famous drawings, “Whom the Gods Would Destroy they First Make Mad” (a variant of a phrase attributed to the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles), which served as the cover of the September 1914 edition, a wild-eyed, heavy-set nude man (seemingly the manifestation of capitalism) strides across a scorched and burning earth with a grenade in one hand and torch in the other, the background drenched in red. Alternatively, for his illustration “The Harbinger of Spring” — selected for the cover of the May 1916 issue — Becker adopted a more quietly effecting approach. Commenting on the agonized facial expression of the drawing’s subject — a street peddler of flowers — Becker explained that the man was a “peddler concerned with sales, especially since his product has a temporary existence. Naturally, his face couldn’t convey the joy that the ‘romantic blossoming of flowers’ brings to the face of a well-to-do purchaser,” any such joy lost to the peddler amid his desperation to sell his flowers before they withered. Becker’s period illustrations also reflected his deeply rooted pacifism, juxtaposed with the oncoming rush of American involvement in World War l. Examples of this genre include “Ammunition,” from the June 1914 issue, which depicts human beings being shot from cannons, as well as an unnamed drawing appearing in that year's December edition, showing a wounded soldier being treated by a nurse, who tells him: “Don’t be discouraged. The doctor says you’ll be back on the firing line in a week.” In what is perceived by many to be his most provocative anti-war image, Becker’s drawing “Laying Down Our Lives for Their Country” — included in the October 1916 issue — sets forth a single file formation of capitalist overlords, each holding a doll-like figure of a World War l American soldier as they follow one another up a flight of stairs leading to an “Altar of Profit,” atop of which is a smoldering fire, onto which the soldiers are placed. A staunch male supporter of women's rights, Becker addressed the issue of gender equality with his oft-reproduced drawing “They Ain’t Our Equals Yet” (first appearing in the January 1917 issue), whereby a group of expensively-dressed men, ensconced at a bar-room table, share a rueful collective smile at the news of legal setbacks sustained by the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The Masses also published social realist illustrations devoid of political or social commentary, with work of this type by Becker often being featured, including the cover of the August 1914 issue, a rendering of a fashionably-attired group of people gathered on a jetty, gazing leisurely at a sailboat in the distance; and the cover of the October 1913 issue, entitled “Hope Springs Eternal,” in which three women, their heads covered by scarves, sit patiently at what might be a train depot, each with a small bag of belongings at her feet.
In addition to The Masses, Becker also contributed work to several other vanguard publications that challenged the prevailing political and economic status quo, including The Liberator (the successor to The Masses), The Toiler, The Blast, Revolt, Survey Graphic, New Solidarity, and the socialist New York City daily newspaper, The Call. According to art historian Richard Fitzgerald, whose essay on Becker appeared in his book Art and Politics, Becker -- whose foundation in political art was influenced by his avowed admiration for the work of noted French caricaturist Honore Daumier -- possessed more artistic resources and techniques than any of the other artists he worked with on the radical magazines, and was the one who most fully assimilated new ideas in art. (Mortimer Robinson, the chief illustrator and cartoonist for the New York Tribune and the highest paid artist in this line of work in America at that time, stated that Becker’s work was even superior to his own.) Wanting to escape the narrow, confined life of the ghetto, Becker remained open to experimenting with new trends and techniques, unencumbered by American artistic traditions. As an Eastern European of Jewish descent — one generation out of Europe — he shared a cultural connection with Modernism, displaying an affinity for a European-based movement which, as evidenced by the Armory Show, provided options to be used to break free of his origins in a traditionalist culture. His embrace of Cubism and elements of Post-Impressionism resulted in the characters in his illustrations being expressively drawn and facially individualized in non-stereotypical ways, leading many art historians to conclude that Becker’s merger of art and politics was the most fully realized model of this art form in the pre-war years, though Fitzgerald suggests that the level of success Becker deserved to attain as an illustrator was undermined by the richness of his work, which often may have been too complicated or subtle for the magazine audience to fully appreciate.
In light of the limited financial remuneration offered by periodicals such as The Masses — if indeed there was any compensation at all -- Becker earned an income as a freelance illustrator for a broad range of contemporary publications, including Harper’s Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post, and Metropolitan magazine. In the years 1914-1915 he served as a sketch artist for the New York Tribune newspaper, and was commissioned in 1917 by the Scripps Newspaper Syndicate to travel as an artist-correspondent to the newly purchased U.S. Virgin Islands, where he completed a series of drawings with commentaries that appeared in numerous American newspapers, exposing the perpetually neglected condition of the island’s native inhabitants in an honest, straightforward manner reminiscent of the era’s reform-minded journalism. In 1918 he married Dorothy Baldwin, a social activist sharing Becker’s advocacy of major systemic change through peaceful means; Becker’s pacifism became the blueprint for his registration that same year as a conscientious objector to the First World War. Arguing his case before a military tribunal, Becker testified that “ever since I could reason and think I have had a horror of war. I do not believe it is right to kill a human being under any circumstances. I do not belong to any religious sect of any church but my own conscience leads me to this position. Much of my artistic work and many of my sketches and cartoons done since the war began bear me out on this statement.” Notwithstanding his testimony, Becker’s application for a draft deferment was denied, and he was conscripted into the army, at which point he fled to Mexico, only to return a year later under the mistaken impression that a change in policy toward draft resistors was imminent. Arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Becker served four months before President Woodrow Wilson declared a general amnesty for all conscientious objectors. Following his release from military prison, Becker worked through the trauma he experienced by producing a series of illustrations that, taken at face value, expose shockingly brutal forms of punishment, untethered to any legal or ethical boundaries. In a 2016 exhibition sponsored by the Library of Congress entitled “American Artists View the Great War” (now available online), two of Becker’s creations from this series are represented (one a charcoal drawing, the other a lithograph), both variations on the same theme: Conscientious objectors hung from the ceiling of their cell by chains attached to their wrists, fully unclothed and exposed. Though not as well known as some of his other period illustrations, they are arguably his most compelling and effecting — the Guardian newspaper called the lithograph one of the most “poignant” images of the exhibition — and, expressively rendered or not, appropriately serve as what were in essence Becker’s final major works in the realm of political art.
In 1921 Becker returned to Mexico with his wife, working as an artist for an English language publication, El Pulsa de Mexico, and traveling to the city of Cuernavaca — a cultural haven once serving as the summer home of Aztec emperors — where he completed a number of paintings, several of which being chosen for display alongside the work of such major Mexican artists as Diego Rivera, Jose Clement Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros in a group exhibition at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, a venue holding the distinction of being the first significant art academy and first art museum in the New World. Returning to America in 1923, Becker fully immersed himself in painting, building upon a reputation that had been in evidence as early as 1914, when the Brooklyn Daily Eaglecalled a show of his held at a small exhibition space in lower Manhattan “strikingly distinctive” and “sufficiently out of the ordinary to command attention.” In 1924 that same newspaper had this to say about his recently executed Mexican work, on view at the Whitney Studio Club in New York City: “(his) figure paintings and landscapes are characterized by a rich vibration of color . . . along with the rich vitality of the tropics. His Indian women have a rich, sensuous bloom to their skin which the majority of our painter-adventurers in tropical countries miss entirely. Becker’s pictures make one feel that he was more than an onlooker in search of local color. He has imbibed the spirit of the country.” In 1927 Becker traveled to the island of Bermuda, showcasing the compositions he produced there in an exhibition held the following year at the progressive New Art Circle Gallery in Manhattan, whose reputation as a meeting spot for artists and art-lovers reflected the following of its owner, J.B. Neumann, a dealer, critic, and art historian who championed the careers of Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Georges Rouault, and many others. A review of the show in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette cited Becker’s previous work as having “called forth much admiration and respect,” and said of the present exhibition (Becker’s third solo show at that gallery) that “in his canvasses he seems tremendously at ease, tremendously himself. The lessons he has learned from Cezanne are here well-digested; everywhere color functions in the creating of firm forms . . . we recall particularly a painting of a man diving, and another of reclining bathers in which the grouping of figures is developed into a stunning pattern.” Additionally, Becker held solo exhibitions at venues such as the Delphic Studios and the New School for Social Research, and by 1932 his stature was such that the Museum of Modern Art invited him to be part of a select group of forty-nine painters and photographers — including Georgia O’Keeffe, Bernice Abbott, Stuart Davis, Ernst Fiene, and Ben Shann — whose work was organized into a special exhibition designated to open the museum’s new quarters on West 53rd Street in New York City. Titled “Murals by American Painters and Photographers,” the show arrived at a time when murals as an art form were the center of much discussion, particularly as it related to the decoration of many of the nation’s important public buildings. Becker’s three-part composition — called “A Tribute to Einstein,” bore witness to his lifelong pacifist sensibility. His idea for the mural was actualized after reading a comment that Einstein himself had made: “If 2% of the conscripts in every country said ‘No!,’ there would be no war.” Painted during what Becker called “uneasy days all over the globe,” his piece was reportedly declared the “best work in the show,” by Jose Clemente Orozco. In addition to his work in oil, Becker was a committed watercolorist, with examples of his work in this medium selected for representation at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture, Watercolors, and Prints in 1933. The Macbeth Galleries in New York City showcased Becker’s watercolors in a 1942 solo exhibition titled “Watercolors of Maine and Florida.” The forward to the exhibition’s catalog was written by artist and critic Ralph Flint (who had studied at the Academie Julian in Paris with J.P. Laurens), who wrote that Becker “appears peculiarly alive to the rewarding nature of this seemingly simple and disarming mode of painting. Like Sibelius’s scores, his paintings are touched with the cross-currents and inner voices of the outdoor scenes he depicts. Whether in Maine or Florida, he catches simple facts of landscape or seascape and invests them with qualities highly personal. . . . He orchestrates these forms with much rippling byplay and tonal veiling, with now and then an unmistakable salute to that master watercolorist, Paul Cezanne, who reset the key for generations to come. . . . When the human element is introduced, his treatment becomes more complex, as can be seen in the Paul Klee-like prismatic patterning . . . There is much more that can be said about these watercolors but I am confident that they bespeak the artist far more eloquently than any words of mine.”
In addition to Becker’s solo exhibitions at the aforementioned New York City venues, his paintings were chosen for display in group exhibitions at several of the country’s most selective artistic institutions, including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the National Academy of Design; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Carnegie Institute; the Whitney Museum of American Art (1936 Biennial), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. National arts organizations in which Becker held membership include the Artists’ Equity Association (member, board of directors); Audubon Artists; the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors; the Society of Independent Artists; and the Artists’ League of America. In 1950 the American Federation of Artists bestowed upon Becker their Cultural Achievement Award.
Currently, examples of Becker’s work are represented in such significant public and private collections as the New York Historical Society; the Pennsylvania Historical Society; the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University; the Georgia Art Museum at the University of Georgia; the University of Michigan Museum of Art; the Colby College Museum of Art; the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio; the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, New York; the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida; the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia; the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland; and the Ein Harod and Tel Aviv Museums in Israel.
Maurice Becker died in 1975 at the age of eighty-six. To the end he steadfastly maintained his core set of values and beliefs, unchanged by time and circumstance. “I have no sympathy for those who engineer wars and give them appealing names only to slaughter and make fortunes,” he told an interviewer in 1968, “and will never call such atrocities by the label ‘Patriotism’."
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