A Painter for the People: Ralph Fasanella and the Worker’s Plight

By: Sarah Perdue

April 30, 2020

Ralph Fansanella, American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of the Estate of Ralph Fasanella. © 1970, Estate of Ralph Fasanella

Ralph Fasanella is known for his sprawling colorful depictions of life of the middle class in Postwar New York City.

Born in the Bronx to Italian immigrants in 1914, Fasanella was a lifelong New Yorker. His father worked long days delivering ice in a horse drawn wagon. Fasanella later remarked that  “the compositional density of his pictures was influenced by the experience of helping his father deliver ice, which involved removing all the food from customers' refrigerators and arranging it in neatly ordered stacks.” (Smith, New York Times, December 18, 1997).  In the late 1920’s his father abandoned the family and returned to Italy, which caused Ralph to become closer to his mother, who championed anti-fascist causes and vehemently supported local unions.

Ralph Fasanella's painting titled "Bronx, N.Y.", the ice wagon in the center image is certainly inspired by his father and his profession.

"I may paint flat, but I don't think flat. - Ralph Fasanella"

Ralph Fasanella, "Build Your Union", Detail from a poster created for America's Labor Heritage

Fasanella began organizing labor unions after fighting in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. After developing Arthritis in his fingers, a co-worker from the union suggested he take up painting as a way to ease the pain. This led to a fascination with creating art, and Fasanella left union organizing to paint fulltime. His work circulated among various labor unions and was hung in union halls, however he did not receive acclaim from the art world until the 70’s.

Ralph Fasanella, "May Day", Screenprint

As we celebrate May Day the International Workers Day and the festival of spring, Fasanella’s work takes on even more meaning. This print was created after the painting with the same name. A large maypole leads a parade of workers into Union Square carrying banners championing causes of the times. One banner supports integration and equality of the races, while the other bears the words peace, democracy and security. This scene is rife with details and motifs, and serves as a beacon of hope for the workers of the city, demonstrating what is possible when they all ban together. 

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