Industry In Art: Visualizing Progress Through Painting and Photography

In the 20th Century there have been a number of approaches to painting industrial America. It took some time for artists to work their way up to the task, and some of the first attempts were corporate. In fact, the notion of corporate sponsorship remains in much of industrial art throughout the century.

One place to start is in 1855 with “The Lackawanna Valley” by George Inness. The painting, now in the National Gallery, was commissioned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and depicts the company’s first roundhouse at Scranton, and integrates technology and wilderness within an observed landscape. As his career progressed, Inness would not continue to depict a landscape blended with industry.

The word “industry” in the 21st Century (and late 20th), might just as easily be referred to as technology. A pioneer at bringing technology to his art and work is the photographer William H. Rau. Like Inness, Rau was commissioned, this time by the Pennsylvania Railroad. As revolutionizing as the technology of the steam train was on transportation, photography was as much on the art world. The picturesque images taken by Rau introduced Americans and Europeans to the scenic countrysides not easily accessible before the train. Curiously many of Rau’s photographs do not show trains. The images show a peaceful co-existence between nature and human civilization. They are not unlike a landscape by William Wall, or a painting by Russell Smith. The difference is in the Wall painting, there’s a sense of timelessness, as if the state of things would remain that way forever. That’s a popular notion in sentimental paintings, but not one embraced by Rau. Many of his images provide a clear sense that there is a steady march of progress. An obvious example is in an image of a half-built Philadelphia City Hall.

Corporate commissioning of industrial art may have reached its climax in a series of calendar prints done by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1930s-1950s. During the war effort, the images even incorporated politics, and as government and industry merged in the market, so did they in the commissioned art. One of my favorite by Dean Cornwell shows Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeve as smoke billows and trains thunder below. There’s a certain fascist element to it, one that has repeatedly surfaced into the 21st century in war time. Through the mid-century, smoke had been alligned with progress. The sentiments of the Hudson River painters are completely absent from this image, and never again would industry and the pollution it created be so glamorized.

Some of the best images of industrial America can be found in the work of Aaron Henry Gorson, who painted Pittsburgh’s steel mills. Gorson seems unmotivated by the politics that often invade art, the sense of progress, environmental damage or workers rights. When you look at his work, you don’t see a march of progress, rather an attempt to see industry for what it was physically. Gorson finds the beauty in industry and captures it. The smoke, the colors, the reflections in the water-Gorson seems to look at it all as if it were a tree or sunset. Gorson’s work was commissioned, however, by Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. W. S. King, the wife of a glass manufacturer; the Mellon family; and Charles Schwab. Like many of his benefactors, Gorson later moved to New York and began painting scenes of the city and views of the Hudson River, but continued to create works showing the steel mills of Pittsburgh.

Most associated with industrial art today is Charles Sheeler. I found it amusing that a web site about “Objectivist Art” listed Sheeler as an Objectivist artist. Objectivism is the philosophy of writer Ayn Rand. I felt like emailing the creators of the site this quote I located by Sheeler.

“I find myself unable to believe in Progress–Change, yes. Greater refinements in the methods of destroying Life are the antithesis of Progress. Where is the increase in spirituality to be found?”

I’m in my infancy in regards to my knowledge about Sheeler, but it would seem he is more likely being critical of the depersonalization of industry, or just depicting the way in which we can see the world around us.

Sheeler was also commissioned, by Ford Motor Company to photograph and make paintings of their factories and by Fortune magazine to “reflect life through forms…” that “trace the firm pattern of the human mind.” Sheelers paintings were based on photographs, and so even the more personal painting had its origins in the mechanical photograph. I don’t know for sure if Sheeler, known as a precisionist and modernist, was criticizing the loss of humanity in the modern world. To me there’s elements of both admiration from the shape and form of architecture and machinery, and some sense of loss. However, when he painted the barns in Doylestown, the technique is no different. We may, on the other hand, be thinking too much about it.

“To a man who knows nothing, Mountains are Mountains, Waters are Waters, and Trees are Trees,” Sheeler wrote. “But when he has studied and knows a little, Mountains are no longer Mountains, Waters are no longer Waters, and Trees are no longer Trees. But when he has thoroughly understood, Mountains are again Mountains, Waters are again Waters, and Trees are Trees.”

About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is ericmiller.me

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