Born in New York City, William Gropper was the son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe and the eldest of their six children. His parents worked in the city’s garment industry, living in poverty on the Lower East Side. As a youth, Gropper attended the National Academy of Design and the Ferrer School where he was a pupil of American artists Robert Henri and George Bellows. After studying at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts on scholarship, the young artist was hired as a staff illustrator at the New York Tribune in 1917. Soon, Gropper was a co-founder and contributor to the left-wing New York monthly, The Masses, and later The Liberator, The Nation, and The Revolutionary Age, all progressive socialist publications. During the early 1920s, Gropper continued as a freelance contributor for more mainsteam magazines, including New Pearson’s, Playboy, National Financial News and New York Evening Post. Continuing his personal studio practice throughout this time, Gropper had his first solo exhibition at ACA Galleries, New York, in 1936.
As an advocate for worker’s rights, portraying labor struggles became a prominent theme in Gropper’s work throughout his career. In 1937, Gropper witnessed the horror of the Youngstown Strike as seen in the oil tondo, Little Steel, while traveling the country on WPA funds to document the effects of the Great Depression. He later wrote an article for The Nation about the violent encounter between the truck drivers’ union strikers and local police, “Screams were drowned out by shell fire. Strikers ran in every direction; many of them hurled rocks at the police, others ran to find weapons.” As a WPA muralist in the 1930s and 1940s, Gropper completed several commissions, including the United States Post Office in Freeport, Long Island (1938) and the Northwestern Postal Station in Detroit (1941).
During Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign of the 1950’s, Gropper was asked to testify before the United States Senate. Despite the resulting adversity, he experienced a renewed popularity during the 1960’s. Before his death in 1977 he had gained recognition with his election to the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1968.