The Industrial Revolution inspired Precisionism, the United States’ first homegrown art movement, which used a style inspired by different European art movements (Cubism, Futurism, Purism) to represent subjects found in the developing American landscape. Precisionists “reduced their compositions to simple shapes and underlying geometrical structures, with clear outlines, minimal detail, and smooth handling of surfaces” to depict factories, storage facilities, steel mills, skyscrapers, suspension bridges, and other structures built for commercial needs. (Precisionism | Essay). Elsie Driggs, Charles Demuth, and Charles Sheeler are the three most well-known members of this movement and their paintings Pittsburgh (1927), My Egypt (1927), and River Rouge Plant (1932) express widely different moods despite their shared industrial subject matter.
Sublime Industrial: Pittsburgh (1927) by Elsie Driggs
Pittsburgh’s grey, blue, and yellow palette depict an eerie scene. Smokestacks from the Jones & Laughlin steel mills in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are spewing smoke and ash that swirl through the air and cloud the sky. It is so hazy that it is difficult to determine what time of day this scene is taking place. Driggs painted this composition from a childhood memory of what she saw while she rode the train (Elsie Driggs | Pittsburgh). The use of organic forms to depict the smoke stacks as if they are poisonous creeping vines combined with Drigg’s childhood emotions of feeling overwhelmed and awed when viewing this scene communicate a powerful sense of the industrial sublime, a marveling at the power harnessed by steel mills.
Enigmatic Industrial: My Egypt (1927) by Charles Demuth
My Egypt’s monumental depiction of a grain elevator was achieved through “a low vantage point, [...] [that] [includes] [...] the lower rooftops of neighboring buildings [..] at the bottom of the painting” which makes the grain elevator appear as if it “rises up [majestically] as the pinnacle of American achievement—a modern day equivalent to the monuments of ancient Egypt.” Shafts of light are drawn as sharp, intersecting diagonal planes, which grant a sense of the holy and majestic to the building (Charles Demuth | My Egypt). It’s unclear whether Demuth is exalting the workers who built the structure or the business who owns it, “John W. Eshelman & Sons, the national animal feed manufacturer that once made Lancaster, [Pennsylvania] the [national] center of the feed business” (Jack Eshelman and an Era's End). According to its museum label, “the pyramids and their association with life after death might also have appealed to [...] [Demuth], who was bedridden with diabetes at the time of the painting’s execution.” He turned a building from his hometown and tuned into something iconic (Bensur). Another theory is that My Egypt is an unrecognized self-portrait since he was engaged in making a series of “symbolic, experimental portraiture” of his friends Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove,William Carlos Williams at the time (Walz 3-4). Features of the grain elevator could correspond to parts of Demuth’s frail body: “the storage tanks may be interpreted as swollen legs, the four ventilator shafts above as extended fingers, and the top central window as an all-seeing, Cyclopean eye. Alternately, the structure might be read as the capacious back of a torso” (5).
Sterile Industrial: River Rouge Plant (1932) by Charles Sheeler
Similar to Demuth, Sheeler believed that “American factories were the contemporary equivalent of the cathedral, “our substitute,” he said, “for religious experience.” The River Rouge Plant’s placid appearance is represented through the use of crisp lines to depict the buildings, the calmness of the waters surrounding “the plant’s coal processing and storage facility,” and the absence of any of the 75,000 workers employed by the Ford Motor company that protested its harsh labor practices. River Rouge was located on 2,000 acres and was “the world’s largest factory and the first to fully manufacture cars on site.” It immense physical size and workforce seemed the perfect example of how American industry symbolized the power of “modern rationality and order” where form was shaped by function instead of aesthetics (Charles Sheeler | River Rouge Plant). Sheeler’s passion for being exact left no room for the messiness of human emotions and industrial squalor.
Precisionism celebrated technology and manpower instead of looking at the social and environmental costs industrialization brings to societies. It may seem like “a “cool” [and] [detached] art, which keeps the viewer at a distance [...] by [its] smoothed out [...] brushstrokes, erasing, as it were, [the] [artist’s] personal handwriting;” idealized depiction of light; and use of geometric shapes (Precisionism). However, these paintings are surprisingly emotional given their subjects are buildings and machinery instead of humans. This is due to artists’ identifications with the ideals these structures embody and sense of the sublime (awe, powerlessness, reverence, terror, wonder) they evoke.
"Charles Demuth | My Egypt." Whitney Museum of American Art: Charles Demuth:. Accessed
April 21, 2016. http://collection.whitney.org/object/635.
"Charles Sheeler | River Rouge Plant." Whitney Museum of American Art: Charles Sheeler:.
Accessed April 21, 2016. http://collection.whitney.org/object/1480.
"Elsie Driggs | Pittsburgh." Whitney Museum of American Art: Collection. Accessed April 21,
"Precisionism." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April 21, 2016.
"Precisionism | Essay." The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. June 1, 2007. Accessed
April 21, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prec/hd_prec.htm.
"Precisionism - Oxford Reference." Precisionism - Oxford Reference. Accessed April 21, 2016.