William Gropper, the son of Harry and Jenny Gropper, was born in New York City on 3rd December 1897. His father was a Jewish immigrant, and despite the fact that he had a university degree and spoke eight languages, was forced to accept manual work and the family lived in poverty in New York's Lower East Side.
According to Joseph Anthony Gahn, the author of The America of William Gropper, Radical Cartoonist (1966), his father's situation had a major influence on the development of Gropper's political views. He was further radicalized by the death of his aunt in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster which resulted from locked doors in a New York sweatshop.
In 1912 Gropper began studying under Robert Henri and George Bellows at the Ferrer School in Harlem. The school had been founded by a group of anarchists that included Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Guest lecturers included writers and political activists such as Margaret Sanger, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair.
In 1917 joined the staff of the New York Tribune and over the next few years produced drawings for its Sunday edition. However, as a socialist, he mixed with radical cartoonists such as Alice Beach Winter, Cornelia Barns, Rockwell Kent, Art Young, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, Lydia Gibson, K. R. Chamberlain, George Bellows and Maurice Becker, who worked for the left-wing magazine, The Masses.
Gropper believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system. After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, the The Masses magazine came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges. Gropper now joined forces with its former workers, including Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Crystal Eastman, Art Young, Robert Minor, Stuart Davis, Hugo Gellert, Maurice Becker, Lydia Gibson, Cornelia Barns and Louis Untermeyer to form the Liberator.
In 1922 the journal was taken over by Robert Minor and the American Communist Party and in 1924 was renamed as The Workers' Monthly. Many of the people who contributed to the original Liberator, including Gropper, were unhappy with this development and in 1926, they started their own journal, the New Masses.
Gropper also provided cartoons for The Revolutionary Age, a revolutionary socialist weekly edited by Louis C. Fraina and John Reed. Other drawings appeared in The Rebel Worker, a magazine of the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1921 he left the New York Tribune and became a freelance artist. It has been argued by one critic the "quiet, stocky William Gropper, a punch-packing cartoonist, is a still better painter. He paints as he draws, quickly and simply, without benefit of model, in reds, blues, yellows, whites."
After the failure of his relationship with Gladys Oaks he married Sophie Frankle in 1924. According to Time Magazine: "The two of them built their own nine-room stone house ("bourgeois as hell")" at Croton-on-Hudson. In 1925 he joined the New York World. Two years later he toured the Soviet Union with Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser.
Gropper was a great friend of John Reed, who died of typhus while in Moscow. In 1929 he joined with Hugo Gellert, Jacob Burck, Anton Refregier and Louis Lozowick, to establish the first John Reed Club. The group held classes and exhibitions in New York City. Later, these clubs were formed all over the country.
Gropper also painted and he had his first one-man show at the ACA Gallery in 1936. Gropper's work reflected a keen sense of social injustice and both his paintings and graphics were extremely influential during the Great Depression. He also attacked the growth of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan and a cartoon of Emperor Hirohito that appeared in Vanity Fair in August 1935 caused a diplomatic incident with the Japanese government demanding an official apology.
After the Second World War Gropper became increasingly concerned with the growth of the extreme right in the United States. His attacks on Joseph McCarthy led to him being called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in May 1953. Gropper, who was never a member of the American Communist Party, refused to answer any questions and claimed that the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution gave him the right to do this.
Although blacklisted, Gropper, unlike the Hollywood Ten, who pleaded the 5th, was not imprisoned for taking this action. The experience resulted in him producing a series of fifty lithographs entitled the Caprichos.
Cécile Whiting has argued: "One of the most important illustrators for the American radical press, William Gropper sharpened his pen against potbellied politicians and bloodthirsty fascist leaders, while honoring the heroism of the worker and the rituals of Jewish life... Gropper experimented with a variety of techniques including pen and ink, lithography, etching, and painting. Despite his numerous works on canvas, however, Gropper was most gifted as a political illustrator."
In 1956 there was a major exhibition of his work at the Piccadilly Gallery in London. This was followed by the 1957 La Galerie del Frente Nacional des Artes exhibition in Mexico City. His last major work was the production of stained glass windows for Temple Har Zion, River Forest, Illinois.
William Gropper died from a myocardial infarction at Manhasset on 6th January 1977.