- Work Sights: The Visual Culture of Industry in Nineteenth-Century America by Vanessa Meikle Schulman
In the pivotal three decades from 1857 to 1887, when American technological and industrial systems transformed the nation and penetrated much of the globe, dramatically altering the nature of work and social relations, a wealth of artists’ images played a crucial role in the public understanding of industry and technology. This is the argument of Vanessa Schulman’s careful and illuminating study, Work Sights. Concentrating on wood engravings from popular illustrated magazines, such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1855) and Harper’s Weekly (1857), as well as paintings by several leading artists, Schulman provides informed and astute analysis of the full range of items of visual culture addressed to readers of the mainstream press and to affluent patrons during a period of especially rapid technological change.
Her most important contribution is to consider how painters and popular illustrators responded to the challenge of representing enormous industrial transformations, just before illustrators’ own means of representation would be transformed from wood engravings to halftone illustrations. [End Page 269] Adapting older aesthetic modes and, in the case of illustrators, developing new ones in order to convey the drama of technological and industrial expansion, artists strove to produce images comprehensible and congenial to their viewers.
In these efforts aesthetic tensions necessarily arose between painters and illustrators, as well as within both camps, and indeed within individual artists. These tensions figure abundantly in the first chapter, which explores artistic responses to two key events in the expansion of American technological systems: a transatlantic telegraph cable linking North America to the United Kingdom, first achieved, although only briefly, in 1858, and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869. In both cases celebratory images of rational progress, white racial superiority, and national and international unity were frequently undermined by evocations of weird and sinister powers, subversive races, and dreadful accidents.
Next, Schulman considers how the aesthetic of the sublime provided a convenient ideal to express Americans’ ambivalent responses to industrial technology. A concept developed by Edmund Burke to account for the simultaneous awe and terror stirred by the violence, power, and immensity of nature, and refined by Immanuel Kant to include the restless attraction toward and repulsion from the same object, the sublime especially stimulated artists’ imaginative creativity at the spectacle of industrial might. Its most ambitious American artistic expression came in two large-scale paintings of interior scenes at the West Point Iron and Cannon Foundry by the young John Ferguson Weir: The Gun Foundry (1864–66), depicting the casting of a giant Parrott gun, and its companion piece, Forging the Shaft (first painted 1866–68), portraying the forging of a huge shaft for the propeller of an ocean liner. Contemporary viewers interpreted these paintings as capturing heroic male industry in war and peace.
While acknowledging these themes, Schulman stresses how Weir and his contemporaries used alchemy as a metaphor to express the dizzying technological, political, and spiritual transformations of their age in what she calls the alchemical sublime. A later chapter similarly focuses on the great American landscapist Thomas Moran, and his application of the eighteenth-century aesthetic ideal of the picturesque in his painting Lower Manhattan from Communipaw, New Jersey (1880) in order to transmute the factories, wharves, and sugar refineries on both sides of the Hudson into a shimmering vision of nature and commerce. In the process he also sweetened the more distasteful aspects of the exploitative sugar industry.
The rise of managerial capitalism stimulated more novel aesthetic modes as well, particularly what Schulman calls the managerial eye. To portray the processes of large-scale commodity production, popular illustrators combined cutaway views, multi-paneled images, and panoramas. They also conveyed the managerial insistence on labor efficiency, social [End Page 270] order, and expert control, social values that Schulman sees inculcated not only in factories but also in contemporary public institutions concerned with the training of productive citizens—from vocational schools...