This imposing canvas (293 x 545 cm) is one of the best-known works of contemporary Italian art of the 20th century. An oil painting by the artist Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo between 1898 and 1901, and which is currently exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in Milan. It arrived at this site because of the work, it was never sold, and it was the Milanese City Council that acquired it in 1920.
The Fourth Estate
For the conception of this work, Volpedo (1868 -1907) was inspired by a labor strike that had taken place in the north of the country, in the fertile plain of the River Po. That strike reached the rank of a symbol of the trade union and labor movement in the transalpine country. And without a doubt, the representation that he made of it in this painting became the icon of those social struggles.
We see the workers moving forward together, at a slow but steady and steady pace. They are what was called the "Fourth Estate", that of the mass of wage earners. Some people who walk from the darkness that can be seen in the background of the canvas, towards the light that is in the foreground and beyond. It is difficult for the symbolism to be more evident, and for this reason it has become an image of the movement of socialism and the left, and not only in Italy, but practically throughout Europe.
Of the entire group of workers, only three figures stand out who are several steps ahead. And one of those figures is a woman. Awoman who goes barefoot, and holds her son with only one arm.
And the other two figures are two men. They both look forward and walk very determinedly towards us, the spectators, or rather they advance towards the future. Given the dimensions of the canvas, they are life-size figures. Both wear hats, one carries his jacket over his shoulder and his shirt is open, while the other wears a buttoned vest. But they both walk with an attitude of pride and determination, with their heads held high and looking at us face to face.
And behind that is the set of workers that follows. A group of people who give sensation and to be many for the heads that sink into the depth of the painting. Although, the first line of the group is painted in a detailed and individualized way. They all have their own hand movements, they gesticulate, they turn their heads in all directions and most of all they walk forward. Of course, the group manages to convey an idea of unstoppable progress. For all these reasons it is not surprising that the work is the image of any labor movement.