Charles Lewis Fox (1854 - 1927)
The Path of the City Working Man, Portland, 1892
Oil on canvas
22 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches
Signed and dated at lower left: Charles L. Fox 1892
Inscribed on reverse: The path of the City Workingman / C.L. FOX SOCIALIST
Original gilded oak frame
Alexander Gallery, New York, 1998; [Mark LaSalle Fine Art, Albany, New York, 1998]; private collection, Massachusetts
Alexander Bower, The Work of Charles Lewis Fox, 1854-1927 (1927), n.p., illus.
Erik R. Brockett, Charles Lewis Fox: Early Maine Modernist and Regionalist (unpublished thesis, Harvard University, 1996), pp. 25, 57, 60 (illus.)
The Socialist Labor Party’s two-time candidate for Governor of Maine, Charles Lewis Fox devoted much of his painting career to socially relevant subject matter. Like the present picture, which depicts a group of quarry workers going about their daily activities, much of Fox’s early work reflects his empathy for members of the working class.
Fox grew up in a relatively affluent Portland, Maine, household, and studied architecture for a year at MIT before pursuing training as an artist. Like many aspiring painters of his day, Fox set his sights on Paris, eventually gaining admission to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. While in Paris, Fox undertook an apprenticeship at Manufacture des Gobelins, the renowned textile, tapestry and carpeting workshop established by Louis XIV. His experience there -- learning the intricacies of textile production and color theory while working alongside poverty-stricken master artisans – was to have profound significance on his later life and work. Fox later traveled to Holland before returning to his native Portland in 1886 [Brockett, pp. 15-20].
While Fox’s early works are particularly heavy-handed in their symbolic messages about the inequalities of life, Path of the City Working Man is somewhat more subdued in tone, and conveys a specific sense of place. The quarry workers – who are dwarfed by the mammoth granite cliffs that dominate the scene – engage in an honest day’s labor, their hand tools bit by bit shaping the rock formation that surrounds them. Rather than lamenting their circumstances, however, Fox presents their efforts in a positive light. Although the workers appear individually rather insignificant in the overall scheme of things, together, over time, they have impacted their surroundings and accomplished a mammoth task. Yet a small factory smokestack is visible on the horizon, perhaps suggesting that industrialization looms ahead as the laborers’ next -- and not altogether preferable -- frontier.
Fox eventually decided to convey his political messages via more direct means than through his art, and in essence gave up painting for the fifteen years he became actively involved in Maine politics. Afterwards, he devoted himself to recording on canvas Maine’s native Penobscot peoples, portraying them in a distinctly less traditional, almost tapestry-like style.
Alexander Bower perhaps best expressed the aims of the “sensitive artist and gallant gentleman” when he wrote:
Painting and the artist’s expression meant something more to Charles Lewis Fox than a transcript of nature and a search for beauty. [He was] a great and idealistic soul, with an altruistic spirit that strove to make his offering a message with a purpose, whether it be that of the militant crusader for a socialistic scheme of economic life, or the man of vision striving to emphasize the beauty that lies in common things. [The Work of Charles Lewis Fox, pp. 1-2]