The Artwork of Harry Sternberg
Born to Russian-Hungarian parents in New York City in July of 1904, Harry Sternberg was an American printmaker, painter and educator. The youngest of eight children, he spent his childhood in Brooklyn where, at the age of nine, he began art classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Sternberg studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1922 to 1926. He rented a studio in the Greenwich Village area after graduation and began a career in etching, painting, and printmaking.
Sternberg had his first exhibition of work in 1931 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the first exhibitions held at the museum’s West 8th Street address in the West Village area. In 1933, Sternberg was added as an instructor to the staff of the Arts Student League of New York, a position he would hold for the next thirty-five years. Among the students he trained were Charles Wilbert White Jr, known for his chronicling of Afro-American related subjects; painter and graphic artist Isabel Bishop, known for her scenes of everyday life in Manhattan; and artist and teacher Knox Martin, who became one of the leading members of the New York School of artists and writers.
After meeting painter Frida Kahlo and her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, in 1934, Harry Sternberg became more active in union and socialist causes. He became involved with the government’s Works Progress Administration, WPA, in 1935 as a technical advisor to the Graphic Art Division of the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States. After being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936, Sternberg spent a year studying the conditions of workers in steel mills and coal mines. The drawings, etchings and paintings from this period, depicting life in the industrial areas of the United States, later influenced the composition of his mural designs.
Sternberg painted his first WPA mural. commissioned by the Department of the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, for the lobby of the Sellersville Post Office in Pennsylvania. The twelve-foot long 1937 “Carrying the Mail”, depicting the placing of mail in a letterbox and its delivery, was executed in tempera on canvas. Upon its completion, Sternberg traveled to Chicago, where he studied the city’s history, architecture, and industry for his next commissioned mural.
In 1938, Harry Sternberg created his twenty-four foot mural, “Chicago: Epoch of a Great City”, for the Lakeview Post Office in Chicago’s West Side. The painting shows the different stages of the city’s growth and its great industries in four areas: steel, electric power, the stockyards, and the manufacture of farm equipment. In the central portion of the mural is a scene depicting the great Chicago fire of 1871; located above that scene, is an image of the vibrant, modern-day Chicago. Due to years of exposure, a two-year restoration project for the mural was undertaken by Parma Conservation of Chicago from 2001 to 2003.
In addition to teaching at the Art Students League in New York, Sternberg also taught printmaking from 1942 to 1945 at the New School for Social Research. After retiring from the Student League and moving with his family to California, he established a studio in the city of Escondido where he continued to work as an artist. Sternberg also taught painting at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts until 1969. He participated from 1969 to 1978 in the Orme School Fine Arts Festival which exposed students to the instruction and work of professional artists. In 1990, Sternberg published “Sternberg: A Life in Woodcuts”, a collection of his prints produced over the years.
A major retrospective exhibition of his life and oeuvre was presented in 2000, entitled “No Sun Without Shadow: The Art of Harry Sternberg”, at the Museum of the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. Harry Sternberg died in November of 2001. He is the author of two books: “Composition: The Anatomy of Picture Making” and”Woodcut”.
You Insert Image: Harry Sternberg, “Poodle and the Clown”, circa 1950s, Lithograph, 40.6 x 30.5 cm, Private Collection
Middle Insert Image: Photographer Unknown,”Harry Sternberg in Studio”, Date Unknown
Bottom Insert Image: Harry Sternberg, “Chicago, Epoch of a Great City”, 1937, Mural Detail (Welder), Lakeview Post Office, Chicago