What is it?
Ruth Grotenrath (Milwaukee 1912–1988 Milwaukee)
Unloading a Riverboat at Hudson
Oil on canvas
83 x 141 ½ in.
Lent 2001, United States Postal Service Collection
About the Work
Ruth Grotenrath and her husband, Schomer Lichtner (1905 – 2006) became leading artists in Wisconsin during the years of the Great Depression. Grotenrath was not shy about communicating her leftist political point of view. Her early work often had an edge to it at a time when few men, let alone women, dared to paint controversial subject matter or challenge the status quo.
In 1934 the United States government established the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (renamed the Section of Fine Arts in 1938) to pay for the decoration of federal buildings; one percent of construction costs was earmarked for art. Artists competed for commissions; they were “to study the problem and to prepare designs that are appropriate to the locality of the building and the tastes and interests of the public who will use that building.” They were urged “to visit the community and discuss subject matter with leading citizens.”
In 1940, Hudson was a small city in northwest Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River from Minneapolis–St. Paul. During her efforts to secure the mural commission for the new post office, Grotenrath made several preparatory sketches emphasizing the city’s geographical location on a major trade route. Each sketch featured people and a riverboat; one showed children and a dog; one featured ladies in crinoline-enhanced dresses; another depicted a bull being offloaded. The winning composition was a chaotic scene of a stallion coming off the boat surrounded by mostly African-American workers carrying boxes and crates. The bitterly disappointed Hudson postmaster had apparently favored the crinolines and referred to the final submission as “that damned horse painting.”