This painting, completed just three years before the Civil War began, may be an expression of northern antipathy toward the landed gentry of the south. Leisure and Labor is the culmination of Mayer's decade-long exploration of the blacksmith theme. The bifurcated canvas juxtaposes a well-dressed man leaning casually on the right—hands tucked in his pockets and legs crossed—with an industrious and productive blacksmith hard at work on the left. A broken plow and graceful greyhound further underscore his leisure. The dog evokes breeding of animals for sport and show, an idle pursuit of Southern aristocracy during this period. During the war, the greyhound was one of the symbols of the Confederacy in anti-Southern political satires. The moral lesson is further communicated by the white poster on the right which depicts a man (who resembles the Grim Reaper) running with scythe in hand above the misspelled text "Stop Theif!" reminding the viewer that time is precious and not to be wasted.
Mayer, a Maryland artist renowned for his historical subjects and genre scenes, remained publicly ambivalent about the Civil War. After its outbreak, he traveled to Paris, as did two of the most important American collectors of the 19th century: William T. Walters, who commissioned Leisure and Labor and who later founded the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and William Wilson Corcoran, who purchased the painting in 1859 and who later founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Both collectors were known Southern sympathizers.
Purchased 1859 from the artist by William Wilson Corcoran [1798-1888], Washington; gift 10 May 1869 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Third Annual Exhibition of the Washington Art Association, 1859, no. 30.
- Thirty-sixth Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, April - June 1859, no. 180.
- Life in America: A Special Loan Exhibition of Paintings Held During the Period of the New York World's Fair, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 24 April - 29 October 1939, no. 157.
- A Souvenir of Romanticism in Ameria; or, An Elegant Exposition of Taste and Fashion from 1812 to 1865, Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 May - 10 June 1940, unnumbered checklist.
- Man at Work, Denver Art Museum, 2 March - 27 April 1952, no checklist.
- American Painters of the South, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 23 April - 5 June 1960, no. 123.
- A Century and a Half of American Painting, Dulin Gallery of Art, Knoxville, 3 April - 13 May 1963, no. 8.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 15 April - 30 September 1966, unpublished checklist.
- Extended loan for use by the U.S. Embassy, Moscow, 1971-1973.
- Corcoran [The American Genius], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 24 January - 4 April 1976, no checklist.
- Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Cincinnati Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Des Moines Art Center; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1981-1983, no. 6.
- 350 Years of Art & Architecture in Maryland, Art Gallery and the Gallery of the School of Architecture, University of Maryland, College Park, 26 October - 1 December 1984, no. 27.
- The Century Club Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 July - 13 September 1993, unpublished checklist.
- Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, 8 February - 8 June 2003, no checklist.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 November 2004-7 August 2005, unpublished checklist.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 29.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1 March - 27 July 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Shapiro, Emily Dana. "Frank Blackwell Mayer, Leisure and Labor." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 20, 118-119, 264, repro.
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