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The moment of American Industry: Elsie Driggs, Blast Furnaces, 1927

Elsie Driggs' painting "Blast Furnaces" captures the beauty of industry in 1927 Pittsburgh. She connects the geometrical forms of the steel factory to classical art. The painting reflects the importance of steel in America's growth, and questions the relationship between humans and industry. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at a painting by Elsie Driggs called "Blast Furnaces," and it dates to 1927. This is a painting that was made from sketches made in Pittsburgh, the heart of American industry, the heart of American steel. This was the moment of American industry. - [Jen] The site is the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company factory, which the artist first saw when she was a young girl, when she was traveling by train in Pennsylvania. She recounted that her father woke her up on this train ride and she looked outside and saw the Bessemer furnaces and was just completely taken by this vision of industry. When she visited much later, the plant was no longer using the Bessemer process, so she went and discovered a very different scene, and depicted it in this painting. - [Steven] The production of steel couldn't have been more important to the development of the United States at this moment. The steel that's being produced in Pittsburgh at this time is being used in the burgeoning automobile industry, for the bridges that are being built, and for the skyscrapers that are being erected, especially in Manhattan. - [Jen] Also, railroad tracks and all of the infrastructure needed for the rail system would've been formed from the steel made in plants such as this. - [Steven] But Driggs is not representing a locomotive within a beautiful landscape, or the soaring skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. Instead, she's representing something that most people wouldn't find beautiful. She's finding beauty in a factory. - [Jen] This choice of subject became popular in the 1920s, and for Driggs it was about looking at the beauty of these forms, and connecting it back to the beauty of classical art. - [Steven] And that seems at first to be a bit of a jump. How can you go from the steel mills of Pittsburgh to the pristine marbles of Ancient Greece and Rome? How can we talk about those two things in one breath? I think, for Driggs, it's not so much the subject matter as a kind of formal beauty. It has to do with order and symmetry, and emphasis on geometry. - [Jen] The repeated geometries and pattern within the painting are so crucial. We have those four large cylindrical forms in the center, but then you have the echoed pairings of these different smokestacks in the back, from the four darker vertical portions to those three brown smokestacks that are in the far distance, so you get that sense of an underlying order. - [Steven] But I'm especially fond of the way that she interrupts that order. You have those four massive cylinders that anchor the painting. But then, in front of that, you have this piping that seems more organic. - [Jen] You also have the scaffolding, which creates this fine, lacy detailing that makes an interesting contrast to the large, flat planes of those cylinders. - [Steven] And also gives us a sense of the scale of these monumental structures. I can just imagine that if I was standing on one of those walkways, the top railing would come just a little higher than my waist. This is a dark painting. Even the sky, which is the brightest part of this painting, is dark. It's grays, yellows, and tans. - [Jen] This seems like a place that's so out of scale, and so inhospitable to human presence that you wonder what is the relationship between the human and industry that in some ways, these forms that humans have created have taken on a life of their own that seems to be completely outside of the everyday world of human experience. - [Steven] Well it makes sense to me that there is that kind of ambivalence. Because Pittsburgh had been the site of some of the most violent labor riots in the United States. It was a place that had witnessed terrible industrial accidents and loss of human life, and so that ambivalence makes sense to me. There's a cost to this industry. - [Jen] Even the viewpoint slightly distances you from a human experience. The way that she crops the painting on the bottom and at that top gives you the sense that you're almost floating and disembodied, so in the viewpoint itself, Driggs is playing with that question, of what is the relationship between human scale and industry? - [Steven] And it's worth noting that only two years after this painting was completed, Wall Street will crash, and American industry will grind to a halt. (jazzy piano music)