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Käthe Kollwitz believed that art should effect social change. She originally envisioned “The Downtrodden” as part of a triptych related to her cycle of etchings called “The Weaver’s Rebellion,” but ultimately she developed it as an independent work.

“The Downtrodden” forces viewers to confront the vulnerability of working-class people struggling to survive. A woman cradles the head of dead or ailing child in her lap; the man standing to her left turns away, covering his face with a hand.

As an Expressionist artist, Kollwitz skillfully manipulated her black-and-white medium to maximize the etching’s emotional impact on viewers. Kollwitz contrasted the inky background with the delicate cross-hatching that defines the adult figures. Against these dark areas, the child’s head and shoulders appear startlingly pale.

In “The Downtrodden,” Kollwitz also acknowledged the range of emotion that the illness or death of a child can wrought. The quiet concern of the woman’s face contrasts with the man’s clenching left hand—a gesture that powerfully signifies the anguished expression it obscures.

Details

  • Title: The Downtrodden
  • Creator: Käthe Kollwitz
  • Date: 1900/1900
  • artist profile: German-born Käthe Kollwitz used her prints and sculptures to confront social injustice and suffering. Raised in a politically progressive middle-class family, Kollwitz enjoyed family support for her artistic ambitions. When she became engaged to a medical student in 1889, her father even sent her to study in Munich to persuade her to choose art over marriage. Following graduation, she returned to Berlin to marry her fiancé Karl Kollwitz in 1891. Though Kollwitz studied both painting and printmaking, she turned exclusively to the print in the early 1890s. Influenced by fellow German artist Max Klinger, she saw the potential of the print for social commentary. Prints could be reproduced inexpensively and in multiples, allowing her to reach more people. For the next 50 years she produced dramatic, emotion-filled etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs—generally in black and white but sometimes including touches of color. Initially, her husband’s working-class patients proved worthy models and subjects. Beginning in the teens, Kollwitz’s subject matter came to reflect her experience as a witness to both World Wars. She was devastated by the suffering and loss of human life, including the loss of a son in the first war and a grandson in the second. Although Kollwitz’s wrenching subjects and virtuoso technique soon made her work popular throughout Germany and the Western world, they also generated controversy. In 1933, the Nazi government forced her to resign her position as the first female professor appointed to the Prussian Academy (in 1919); soon thereafter she was forbidden to exhibit her art. During her final years, Kollwitz produced bronze and stone sculpture embodying the same types of subjects and aesthetic values as her work in two dimensions. Much of her art was destroyed in a Berlin air raid in 1943. Soon thereafter, Kollwitz evacuated to Moritzburg, a town just outside Dresden, where she died two years later.
  • Style: Expressionism
  • Physical Dimensions: w9.75 x h12.125 in (Without frame)
  • Type: Print
  • Rights: Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photography by Lee Stalsworth
  • External Link: National Museum of Women in the Arts
  • Medium: Etching and aquatint on paper
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Exhibitions: “Trove: The Collection in Depth,” 2011; “Preserving the Past, Securing the Future: Donations of Art, 1987-1997,” 1997–98; “The Washington Print Club Thirtieth Anniversary Exhibition: Graphic Legacy,” 1994; “Käthe Kollwitz: A Self-Portrait,” 1992; “Four Centuries of Women’s Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts,” 1990–91

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