From his earliest days as a student, Russell Drysdale was marked as an artist of exceptional promise. Drysdale studied under George Bell in Melbourne briefly in 1931, and then again from 1935-1938. Drysdale's early works are remarkable in their capacity to imitate the style of their prototype, which included works by Braque and Modigliani, and perhaps more enduringly Cézanne, Fairweather and Bell himself: "those who influenced the overall organisation as well as individual mannerisms." (M. Eagle & J. Minchin, The George Bell School, Melbourne, 1981, p.94).
Cézanne's precepts for painting were analysed by George Bell in a lecture given in 1937, which crystallised the artist's approach to form as "Cubes, cones and columns". (G. Bell lecture Modern Art, National Gallery of Victoria, 11 November 1937 in Ibid, p.115). Cezanne's influence extended from the formal to the use of colour on the canvas, building colour harmonies within a work that were not dependent upon the objects depicted.
Men Working with a Pick is one of a series of works Drysdale produced around the period 1936-1939. Men Sawing Logs (1936, Private collection), Men Mixing Concrete (1937, Private collection), and Stacking Wood, Heidelberg (1937, Private collection) all show men at work, yet in each Drysdale explores different approaches and methodologies, revealing his extraordinary gifts of perception and technical facility.
In Men Working with Pick, Drysdale assimilates the lessons of his teachers into a cohesive, vibrant whole. The seeds of Drysdale's attenuated forms lie here, evidence of the primacy of the aesthetic and his powerful imagination: a step in the journey towards discovering his own inimitable style.