On Strike
Hubert von Herkomer


1891
Oil on canvas
Royal Academy of Arts, London



 

Objective Description
      The monumental figure dominates the center of this composition. His face appears angry and grim. His tense fingers hold a crumpled hat and pipe. His well-worn clothes and shoes belie the outfit of a working man, as he leans against the corner of the brick wall, outside of the house. The sorrowful female figure leans against the male, draping her right hand over his shoulder while holding a young child in her arms. She is framed by the dark doorway and stands within the confines of the home. Her pinafore is illuminated drawing our attention to the trinity of figures within the compositional center. In the shadows, behind the mother and child, an older child stands with clasped hands looking at the figures before her. Her gaze is pensive, and her position completes the diagonal perspective of the figures as they recede into the doorway.

Subjective Analysis
      As the 19th century progressed, labor disputes and strikes became more frequent. Violent action at the workplace was often commonplace as demands for better working conditions and wages were put forth. Elizabeth Gaskell's romanticized literary imagery portrayed non-violent and reasonable striking workers in North and South. This tense and forceful figure is a contrast to the both the idea of an angry, violent striking worker and a romanticized non-violent image. By placing the monumental figure in the foreground, outside of the home, our eyes are drawn to the character of the figure himself. On strike, the male figure is feeling the ramifications of no work as well as still having to support his family. Herkomer has portrayed this figure with a powerful forcefulness, as the viewer is meant to identify with the grim reality of the situation and perhaps do something to effect change.
      The domestic scenario, heightened by the representation of the sorrowful mother and children within the home, illustrates a sense of hopelessness. Herkomer has placed the youngest child's head at the same level as her parents, indicating an importance of the plight of children as well. The child holds a spoon in her hand, sympathetically reminding the viewer of the lack of food, as there is no work for the parent. The child's red dress is an eye-catching device to hold the viewer to the central figures, as well as to balance the coloration of the surrounding bricks.

That trade unions have had certain injurious effects on the character of the working men, as well as on the relations between them and their employers, seems not to admit of doubt. Thus much the evidence which we have collected appears to us to establish. But in respect to the special character and extent of those effects, there is, as might be expected, great discrepancy between the witnesses… The workmen, looking rather to the approval of their unions than to that of their employers, are less anxious than of yore to stand well with the latter; and the employers on their part no longer feel under the same obligation to look after the interests of their workmen and to assist them in periods of difficulty… To this it is replied on the part of the unions, that their real tendency, considered in a wider and more equitable view, is to raise, not depress, the character of the workman, by making him feel that he is not an insulated agent, subjected to oppression, or at all events to accidents over which he has no control, but a member of a strong united body, capable at once of defending his rights and ensuring him a resource in case of temporary need. It is maintained also that the practice of having a code of working rules agreed to between employers and workmen, such as the better unions seek to establish, embracing a book of wages, of laws, and of trade rules, is attended with the best results; that it tends to diminish and usually to extinguish the occurrence of strikes, and to establish a spirit of cooperation between masters and workmen.

Majority Report of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions; 1867-69