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Philip Reisman (American 1904 – 1992)

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

Railroad Police, 1938, oil on Masonite, 21 ¾ x 18 ¾ inches, signed and dated lower right, titled, signed and dated verso, dimensions and remnants of two labels verso together with “#181”


About the Painting

Railroad Police is a prime example of Reisman’s 1930s paintings. Reisman explained, “I am not interested in formal aesthetic problems to the exclusion of human problems. My feeling is that art, as it has been in the past . . . is a language to be used to express human ideas and emotions, every aspect of men’s lives . . . drama, tragedy, comedy, everything.” In this work, Reisman explores the drama and tragedy of a confrontation between a group of migrants who rode the rails looking for work and a better life during the Great Depression and police and private security who were charged to stop them. As the economy ground to a halt and unemployment reached nearly 25% by 1933, millions of itinerant Americans went on the move. It is estimated that over 250,000 of these migrants were teenagers. Faced with extreme poverty, many illegally hopped on the nearest freight train to make it to the next town, city or state. In the Daumier-influenced Railroad Police, Reisman captures the moment when one of the migrants has been beaten down by an amply fed and well-appointed railroad official who sports a suit and tie while policemen threaten others at gun point. The action takes place against the background of a red box car, blue sky, and the white corner of a building. Rarely a subtle artist, Reisman’s evocation of the American flag seems to question how this could happen in the United States.

About the Artist

Philip Reisman was a well-known social realist painter who had a life-long devotion to painting the common person in everyday pursuits, as well as in desperate situations. Born in Poland, Reisman and his family immigrated to the United States in 1908. He studied at the Art Students League and participated in WPA programs which afforded Reisman a greater opportunity to pursue a career in art. In addition to being employed in the easel painting section, Reisman completed a mural for Bellevue Hospital. He exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Academy of Design, and other prominent institutions. Reisman was honored with solo shows, he was represented by New York’s ACA Gallery and his works were shown at other important galleries, including Dudensing, Kennedy and Mabeth. A committed leftist, Reisman was drawn to the egalitarian socialism of the John Reed Clubs, and he actively participated in the American Artists Congress and the Artist Equity Association of New York, where he served as vice president and later president. Reisman’s life and work were the subject of a 1986 book-length monograph published by Ulrich Museum of Art. He is listed in Who was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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