In the center of the scene, a man sits on a park bench—his jacket is on his lap and the sleeves of his white shirt are rolled up. A brimmed white hat covers his face and, although he’s leaning forward, his head is turned toward the man to his right. These two are not alone. On bench after bench we see men, either alone or in twos, reading, talking, or staring into space—their faces are solemn. Several are standing; one wears a Roman collar and several have canes. All are well dressed and most wear neckties, jackets, and hats. The best dressed among them is an African American seated in the lower left. Two bearded men at the right of the scene face each other. One is gesturing; the other holds a book. A lone dog peers out from behind his master’s foot. The trunks of bare trees dot the park. The warm reds and earth tones in the row of brick buildings in the background contrast with the cool grays and browns of the rest of the painting. Out of Work aptly conveys the mood of the scene.
Painted in 1935 by St. Louis artist Aimee Schweig, Out of Work reflects the terrible economic condition known as the Great Depression when 16 million Americans, or one in every three workers, was unemployed. The prosperity of the 1920s, with “easy money” and fantastic speculation in the stock market, led to the stock market crash of 1929. The solemn, gaunt faces and stooped shoulders of the men in this painting reflect the suffering, sacrifice, and severe hardship that affected so many. St. Louis had the largest shantytown, or “Hooverville,” as it was often referred to, of any city in America. It took America’s involvement in World War II to finally bring the country out of these difficult times, which had also affected the economy worldwide.
Born in 1891, Aimee Schweig attended art classes at Washington University and also at the art colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A skilled painter, she help create the People’s Art Center (an integrated art school that was a “venture in Democracy”) and was a founding member of St. Louis chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. Revered as a teacher, she inspired many students during the 21 years that she taught at Mary Institute. A member of Artists’ Equity, she was among those who picketed the City Art Museum (now the Saint Louis Art Museum) to demand that more local artists be shown. After that happened, she helped to raise funds for a photographic section at the museum in memory of her husband, Martin Schweig, a prominent photographer. Her works have also been exhibited at the St. Louis Artists’ Guild, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Denver Art Museum, and the National Association of Women Artists.