Art Markets: Depicting industry in art defined the 20th century modernity

“The Conversation” (circa 1930s), an industrial-themed oil on panel
by Pryce Evans (1902-1976). Photo courtesy of Landmarks Gallery.

For the first half of the 20th century, images of industry were synonymous with progress. As assembly lines increasingly supplied the needs and wants of the world’s growing urban population, factory scenes became shorthand for the brave new world of modernity. This was true not only in magazine photography and advertising layouts but in painting and printmaking as artists turned their gaze from landscapes toward the smoking factory chimneys that signified prosperity in those years, not pollution. The luminous streams of molten metal manhandled into vats by teams of muscled workers were endowed with the heroism once accorded to scenes of charging soldiers on the battlefield.

Industrial art became an international genre, crossing political borders and economic systems alike. The scenes of laborers working within the shadows of enormous machines assumed similar form whether in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or the U.S.

One of the earliest hints of industry’s presence in art is Camille Pissarro‘s 1867 landscape, Bords de L’Oise Pontoise. Lush with the foliage of summer, his French countryside with its simple road, blue river, farmland and a figure, includes a factory tower in the distance, its smoke billowing with the clouds. His depiction does not suggest an intrusion on the peaceful scene, more of a happy coexistence of industry with nature.

In Victorian England, depictions of men laboring below the smokestacks, deep down inside the dark gritty factories, was becoming a popular theme among artists of the day. British painter Eyre Crowe (1824-1910) exalts hard working men in the factory setting with his mural, The Foundry (1869) which resonates with a strong and purposeful pride among the men laboring amidst the red-hot furnace and smoke of the foundry. Images of factories and foundries, iron works, coal mines and steel mills represented the national pride of strong men and economic wealth among countries.  French artist Francois Bonhomme (1809-1881) painted a large repertoire of industrial murals throughout his career. His 1865 work, The Foundry Berrichons, represents the sky-high interior of a French foundry,  dark and filled with smoke, with the lurid glow of burning amber illuminating through the dark shadows of the vast windowless shop rooms.

The Swedish artist Anders Montan (1845-1917) created several paintings of the Krupp Steel Works while working in Germany. His 1890 oil, Pouring a Large Steel Casting in the Presence of Dignitaries, Krupp Essen Works, suggests with its title the important regard of the industrial might of a country. These depictions and many others created during the final decades of the 19th century were illustrative, representational likenesses of laborers operating the industrial machines that would shape the coming modern century.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the term “industrialized nation” was a marker of the economic standing of countries. Manufacturing and mass production became the standard. With the rise of modernism in art came new ways of painting the industry at the heart of the modern world.

By simplifying form, the artist could approach the essence of the setting, rather than the setting itself. Expressing the spirit and mood of the scene replaced the flat, illustrative depictions characteristic of earlier art. The modern portrayal of the factory related the intense effort in the hands of the workers struggling to build a new world. The artist didn’t make their work look easy or insignificant.

Among American painters of the genre, many of the most familiar examples were produced in the 1930s. The artists of the WPA, the Depression-era arts program inaugurated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt,  created a large and superb body of work, many depicting industry. Artists from coast to coast, in small towns and large cities, created stylized and in some cases idealized scenes of the workplace and its environment. Some scenes became narratives of the industrial workplace, sometimes gritty and dark but almost always aesthetically pleasing and in some way, uplifting.

Entire books could be written about WPA industrial art, but a few examples will have to suffice. Minnesota-born artist Elizabeth Olds (1897-1991) was a social realist painter and founding member of the screen-printing division of the Federal Arts Project. She produced 20 print editions for the WPA including her prize-winning lithographs of the Omaha stockyards. Emphasizing labor themes, Olds depicted coal miners and steel workers in strict and demanding environments and advocated reforms in the industrial workplace. Her prints occasionally show at auction, with results affordable to the collector. Her lithograph, I Make Steel (1935), sold at Swann Galleries (NY) in 2005 for $1,500 (hammer).

Russell Limbach (1904-1971), another WPA-era printmaker from the midwest (Ohio), created Steel Workers (1934), which could rank with the finest examples of modern industrial art. With stark black and white contrast, three construction workers toil with tools while balanced on suspended steel frames high in the sky. Perched parallel to the peak of a skyscraper looming behind, their efforts evoke an heroic representation of the pride and hard work in building America’s future in the early decades of the 20th century. Limbach’s prints are collectible and can be found for under $1000.

For the collector of industry genre art, visits to antique shops and flee markets can lead to surprising and affordable finds. A fine painter of the genre who left no reputation behind is Pryce Evans  (1902-1976), an unknown Milwaukee artist whose works have been found at local thrift shops. Works signed from the 1930s suggest WPA inspired themes, such as a mural painting of dashing young men hard at play in a softball field and a watercolor depicting an homage to arbor day with a tree-planting ceremony. A mysterious rendering of workmen in a factory is depicted in The Conversation, a mural of three men in a shadowed setting, with a watertower apparent in the background. As his title suggests, the men are engaged in discussion, situated in a dark corner of an industrial building. The objective of the painting must be left to the viewer, as few clues are apparent in the picture. 

Evan’s painting is an example of the many talented and often unknown artists who were inspired by the power and the promise of industry. Their work is being collected as a reminder of what already feels like a bygone era when the Western nations produced the goods that served the whole world.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit, or call 800-352-8892.

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