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.