Integrity of Craft

“Blacksmiths,” a painting from the archives of the History Museum of Mobile, affords a closer look at Great Depression-era Mobile.

Edmond de Celle puts the finishing touches on a Mobile Mardi Gras float, circa 1958. Photos courtesy History Museum of Mobile

Edmond de Celle (1889 – 1972), best known in Mobile for his fanciful Mardi Gras imagery and especially for his Order of Myths float designs, also painted some striking images of Mobile workers in the Great Depression era. “Blacksmiths” (c. 1930s), in the collection of the History Museum of Mobile, is one such painting and a rich demonstration of what one critic called his “honest, straightforward vision and integrity of craft.” Seeing the depth of this work has everything to do with understanding the moment in which he’s painting.

Archival sources confirm de Celle received funding in the mid-1930s from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the New Deal “alphabet soup” programs, and it is probable that this canvas was produced as part of that commission. Moreover, as the country struggled to pull out of the Great Depression, numerous WPA projects were underway in Mobile at this time. Many such projects would have needed blacksmiths — the construction of the Bankhead Tunnel comes to mind — so it is very possible that the blacksmiths de Celle painted here were employed by the WPA. If that is all true, then this painting claims the special designation of being itself a WPA project depicting a WPA project, the artist funded in the same manner as his subjects. It is certainly in the style of other WPA artwork, and the very nature of such funding would have shaped the themes and subjects of the resulting work. The government agencies who employed artists across the country desired an emphasis on the “American scene” and encouraged artists to churn out work with the efficiency of the laborers they so often depicted. 

What is sure is that “Blacksmiths” is a stunning example of the Social Realist style, which developed in the 1930s. Working in flat, intense colors and angular forms, Social Realist artists sought to create images of the “masses,” a newly popular term for the laboring class. Many such artists, dissatisfied with the elitism of the French avant-garde, sought to elevate and honor the working man. De Celle does exactly that in this 1930s painting of Mobile blacksmiths.

Edmond De Celle’s WPA-Funded Painting, “Blacksmiths” (c. 1930s)

Known for his artful contributions to Mobile Mardi Gras, Edmond de Celle was also a commissioned artist for the WPA. Below, art historian and History Museum of Mobile Director Meg Fowler breaks down some of the finer points of this painting from the museum’s collection.

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MOOD Drama comes from the stark contrast in colors. The vibrant yellow — presumably the blacksmiths’ fire — silhouettes the laborers’ bodies and emphasizes their hard work.

ANATOMY Social Realist paintings often emphasize the grueling physicality of the work depicted. Here, witness the men’s musculature, coarsely defined with a few contrasting strokes.

TECHNIQUE The bold, simple brushstrokes are meant to appear rough-hewn, a parallel to the heavy, straightforward materials with which the blacksmiths accomplish their work.

STOP MOTION The hammers at the top — at least 10 of them — and the jumble of arms and legs accentuate the repetitive nature of the work. Like a stop motion film, every position of the hammer is depicted.

MAN-MADE Square-jawed and firm-faced, these anonymous everyday workers are heroicized as symbols of persistence and strength and the backbone of an increasingly industrial society.

Meg McCrummen Fowler is director of the History Museum of Mobile. She earned her M.A. in History of Art at Tulane University, where she is currently completing a Ph.D. in Art History & Society.

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