Born in Philadelphia in 1910, Joseph Hirsch began his study of art at the Philadelphia Museum when he was seventeen. He also studied privately with Henry Hensche in Provincetown and George Luks in New York City. In addition to formal study, Hirsch traveled extensively, including a five year stay in France. He participated in the WPA in the easel painting division, with occasional work in the mural division, where he painted murals in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Building and the Municipal Court. During WWII, Joseph Hirsch took part in the war effort as an artist war correspondent, recording significant battles and events. He taught at the Chicago Art Institute, the American Art School, University of Utah and had a significant tenure at the Art Students League in New York. He also won many awards, among them were a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, the Walter Lippincott Prize, First Prize at the New York World's Fair (1939), the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1942, 1943), and the Fulbright Fellowship (1949).
Early in his career, Joseph Hirsch was introduced to the movement of Social Realism through George Luks, who was one of "The Eight". This group of painters, at the beginning of the century, chose to depict ordinary and everyday scenes. From this movement stemmed the Social Realism genre of the 1920's and 1930's. Particularly during the Great Depression, social consciousness and commentary were important components of the movement, dictating subject matter. Social commentary was the backbone for the majority of Joseph Hirsch's paintings.
Although Social Realist painters often used specific themes, there wasn't a specific style that all of the painters followed (except realism). In his mature period, the 1960's and 1970's (the time period of the paintings he did for the Bureau of Reclamation), Hirsch used a series of layered planes to compose the painting. Often, there are a series of two-dimensional zones in which the figures reside. Typically these planes are frontally oriented towards the viewer of the painting. Depth is suggested by layering of planes and the figures contained within, rather than through perspective. These paintings appear to be snapshots, capturing people in mid-action, not posing. While Hirsch's paintings are social commentary, he was careful that the viewer had to figure out the message. There are a multitude of readings, depending on the viewer.
The paintings that Hirsch did for the Bureau of Reclamation are less obviously Social Realism. He appears to have been fascinated with the workman and his machinery, which fits into the manner of his chosen genre. Still, the emphasis in the Construction at Soldier Creek series is more on the machinery than the operators of the machinery. This interest in the technology and machinery of building is often associated with Charles Sheeler in particular. However, the paintings of Joseph Hirsch are in no way as precise and mechanical as those of Sheeler. Instead, there is a sense of whimsy and play in his paintings. The machines could be read as children's toys, and this sense is augmented by his use of bright colors, especially the complementary colors yellow and purple. The lack of other equipment and activity further reinforces the toy feeling. These paintings are exuberant, celebrating construction and the workers.