Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 25, 2008 with permission of the author and the Westmoreland Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Westmoreland Museum of Art directly at 221 N. Main St., Greensburg, PA 15601 or through either this phone number or web address:


Valley of Work: Scenes of Industry in Western Pennsylvania

by Judith Hansen O'Toole


Nineteenth-century American art is best known for the grand landscapes of the Hudson River School and its followers celebrating the pristine, natural beauty of the New World. Evidence of man was barely a footnote in these works, vastly overwhelmed and diminished by nature's awesome power. A distant cottage with smoke billowing from its chimney, a fisherman near a stream, or a Native American encampment were the lone trespassers in these great works.

Even as they developed their canvases, these artists knew their precious wilderness was disappearing as the Industrial Revolution unfolded and they fought all the harder to record the virgin landscape. Western Pennsylvania artists followed the influence of their more prominent counterparts; artists like George Hetzel, Charles Linford, Joseph Woodwell, William Coventry Wall, and Alfred Wall captured the beauty of Pennsylvania's mountains and streams until the turn of the century.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Pittsburgh's iron industry began to shape the outlying rural areas and then the suburbs, all stimulated by the low cost of iron and coke. The first rolling mill powered by a steam engine was established there in 1812 and the number of steam mills increased rapidly. By 1817, Pittsburgh was a large urban area. It boasted four glass factories, three breweries, two potteries, a grist mill, a steam engine factory, a nail mill, cotton and woolen factories, and four printing establishments.

In the early years of the industrial revolution, Pittsburgh and its environs grew dramatically, almost uncontrollably. It was not the beautiful city we know today. The streets were muddy and lit at times only by the pitch fires set to kill repeated outbreaks of cholera in the densely inhabited city. Smoke and filth from factories added to the dirty and unsavory environment. Yet Pittsburgh continued to attract immigrant families seeking employment.

By 1860, steelmaking's roots were deep in the city. In the next decade, Pittsburgh would boast thirty-three rolling mills, and by 1880, its sixteen enormous steel works manufactured one quarter of the country's rolled iron and two thirds of its crucible steel. For fifty years, Pittsburgh was an unrivaled industrial giant; the steel and iron industries earned it the epitaph, "smoky city."

Artists were among immigrants drawn to Pittsburgh. While some, like the European-born George Hetzel, chose to escape the city to paint the landscape, increasing numbers drew inspiration from the manmade spectacle, fascinated with the mills' dramatic display of power and light. When the Carnegie Institute began international exhibitions in 1896, artists brought in to serve as jurors marveled at the city's numerous bridges, rivers, and industrial plants, taking time out to paint them.

One of Pittsburgh's principle artists during the mid-1850s, Emily Bott (1827 - 1908) was born in Germany and studied in Dusseldorf. Bott's hand-painted lithograph is among the earliest view's of Pittsburgh's industrial face. Its high vantage point and infinitesimal detail were common to city views popular at mid-century. Bott drew the scene from the heights of the city's north side, then known as Allegheny City. Remnants of displaced nature, a tree and straggled undergrowth to the lithograph's far right, frame the Point. A dramatic land triangle is created as the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers merge into the Ohio flowing west of the city. Bott captures five of the city's many bridges, a busy port, and many smoke stacks in this 1851 print.

In the 1890s, Martin B. Leisser (1845 - 1940) produced gritty scenes, preceding the Ash Can School artists by a few years. The son of German immigrants, Leisser studied in Munich and Paris with other Americans including William Merritt Chase and Frank Duveneck. Though Leisser preferred to paint bucolic landscapes, his 1913 A View of Pittsburgh used a somber palette to create a forlorn view of tenement buildings overlooking the river in winter.

Leisser became known as the "Dean of Pittsburgh artists" when he befriended industrialist Andrew Carnegie and encouraged him to establish an art school at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University). Leisser was a founding member of the Art Society of Pittsburgh, and he served on the Carnegie Institute's original Fine Arts Committee.

Joseph Pennell (1857 - 1926), one of America's leading illustrators, was among the first artists to concentrate on urban landscapes, winning national and international acclaim. His book, Pictures of the Wonder of Work (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1916), includes many etchings of Pittsburgh. He called it "the work-city of the world"; his Pittsburgh No. 1 from 1909 is reproduced on the book's cover. The medium was perfect to capture the sooty blacks and smears of smoke defining the city hub.

Describing another Pittsburgh view, he commented "how much more impressive is a row of blast furnaces, oil wells, and coal breakers, than trees!" In the book, Pennell called upon America's artists to look within their country and one another for inspiration: "... to White's etching of Brooklyn Bridge, [Colin Campbell] Cooper's skyscrapers, Alden Weir's New York at night, [George] Bellow's docks, Childe Hassam's high buildings, Thorton Oakley's coal breakers ...."

Otto Kuhler (1894 - 1976) was born in German; his family had operated an iron works in the industrial valley of the Ruhr River for generations. Kuhler felt at home upon his 1923 arrival in Pittsburgh. His knowledge of engineering and passion for the machinery gave his work distinctive character and realism. Calling Pittsburgh the "most picturesque place in the world" (at a time when few agreed), Kuhler returned often to paint, even after moves to New York, Colorado, and New Mexico. Though he spent only five years there cumulative, Kuhler said he was haunted by "the rolling hills of Pittsburgh, the busy rivers, puffing and whistling trains endlessly proceeding day and night"...and had "done my best to hold it in my work."

Kuhler's etchings rival those of the better-known Pennell. Kuhler's view of the George Westinghouse bridge is a dramatic composition with the city framed in the construct's huge concrete arches. Called the "Bridge of Size," its fifteen-hundred foot span was dedicated in 1932, and heralded by National Geographic Magazine as one of the year's engineering feats and a "major conquest of nature." The railroads and factories beneath are dwarfed by the mammoth bridge. It connected two sides of the valley, one dominated by the Carnegie Steel Company, the other by the vast plants of Westinghouse.

Kuhler was also an accomplished watercolorist, as demonstrated by his Pittsburgh view washed in sepia and rust. His oil works include a rare interior view of Allegheny Drop Forge (then the Duff-Norton Plant), completed for commission around 1925. This painting is praised for its dramatic use of color and light and the accuracy in which it rendered the forge's mechanical processes. Interior views were not as common; perhaps, because they were less dramatic and more infused with a human element than broad exteriors of the factories. Most artists avoided the social and political issues that figures would have introduced into their work.

Aaron Harry Gorson (1872 - 1933) masterfully captured the mills at night. His heavily-laden paint brush -- dipped in deep blues, greens, purples and black -- captured the romance and power as they lit up the dark skies, reflecting in the rivers. Gorson noted that he loved "the way the muddy water catches the gleam of dying light and becomes transformed into running gold."

Born in Lithuania, Gorson came to the United States as a young man in 1888. He lived in Pittsburgh from 1903 until 1921, and died in New York in 1933. Although he was trained as a realist painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a Parisian trip exposed Gorson to the Impressionists and Post Impressionists: he developed a loose, rich brush style. His compositions reveal influence from the nocturnes of his famous American expatriate and contemporary, James McNeill Whistler.

Gorson painted at Pittsburgh's industrial height; he saw beauty and majesty in the transformed landscape. He was fascinated by the white flames and crystal sparks of metal against vague nocturnal shapes of the black hills and rolling rivers surrounding the mills. He was quoted as saying that Pittsburgh is "beautiful nevertheless and I will yet prove it to the world. I laugh when I hear people railing at Pittsburgh's smokey atmosphere...foggy air adds wonderfully to the artistic effectiveness of the view."

Hayley Lever (1876 - 1958) and Ernest Lawson (1873 - 1933), two nationally prominent artists, came to Pittsburgh as jurors for the Carnegie International exhibitions. Their paintings were very similar: high vantage points -- capitalizing on the extraordinary number of bridges, buildings, factory smoke stacks -- and billowing smoke crowding the water's edge. Both found brilliant color reflected through the smoky city; Lawson's impasto brushwork showed particularly brusque dabs of color. Confused by the area's geography, Lawson erroneously titled his painting Mon River at Allegheny, PA, naming the wrong river.

Johanna Knowles Woodwell Hailman (1871 - 1958) daughter of landscape painter Joseph Woodwell, studied at her father's knee. She specialized in flowers and gardens, but painted several scenes of her birthplace including a gouache, Pittsburgh River Scene, from 1929. The piece's strong composition reduces cut-off shapes of barges, bridge, land, and water to almost abstract forms.

William Hyett (1876 - 1912), who taught at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and Everett Warner (1877 - 1963), who spent most of his life in the East, painted more impressionistic views of the city. Hyett's River Scene captures a winter night, with deepening shades of blue defining the shapes of barges and factories across the shore. Everett Warner's Panther Hollow, set in bright winter daylight, shows only a bit of the city's grime.

The precisionist style of Kindred McLeary (1901 - 1949) is seen in his watercolor Steel Mills and Barges. McLeary was an architect, evidenced by the cubes, rectangles, and cylinders which make up his steel mill. The mill's frenetic pace seems quieted by the imposed structure of McLeary's buildings; the paddle wheeler appears somehow frozen in the glassy water.

Artists in Western Pennsylvania still turn to subjects provided by industry but these are quickly disappearing from the landscape. The hugh blast furnaces and steel mills are being torn down and survive now mainly through the images captured by artists decades earlier. Valley of Work shows the many stylistic variations each artist brought to the powerful subjects provided by the "Steel City" and its environs.

-- The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Joan Guerin, JoAnne Lewis, and Jennifer Brezina.

About Judith Hansen O'Toole

Since 1993, Judith Hansen O'Toole has been director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her expertise in nineteenth-and twentieth-century American art is reflected in the museum's collections and exhibitions. She was director of the Sordoni Art Gallery and an associate professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from 1982-1993. She has organized exhibitions on artists and artist groups including the early twentieth century artists George Luks and Carl Sprinchorn, American still-life painting, the Ash Can School and the Hudson River School. She is widely consulted as the authority on works by Severin Roesen and Luks.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 25, 2008, with permission of the author and the Westmoreland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 5, 2008. Ms. O'Toole's article pertains to a special exhibition, Valley of Work: Images of Industry in Western Pennsylvania, that was on view at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1996. This text was also published in the February - March 1996 issue of American Art Review,.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judith Hansen O'Toole and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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