- Work Sights: The Visual Culture of Industry in Nineteenth-Century America by Vanessa Meikle Schulman
In Work Sights, Vanessa Meikle Schulman provides a generously illustrated analysis of images of industry circulating in both popular print culture and studio painting in the thirty-year period between 1857 and 1887. She argues that these images “were intended to manufacture a consensus about the roles of technology and industrial capitalism in the modern United States” (3). Schulman’s analysis relies predominantly on images circulating in popular monthly magazines and weekly newspapers like Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Vanity Fair, particularly in the post–Civil War period. She limits the chronological scope of her study with two significant milestones: the 1857 launch of Harper’s Weekly on the pre-war end, and the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 on the latter end—significant because this act followed on the heels of the standardization of the railroad track gauge in 1886, a move designed to encourage interstate transportation.
In spite of what Schulman sees as the primary function of these images—to produce a consensus about American technology and capitalism—she traces what she sees as “tensions” between the interests of the purveyors of popular print images designed to instruct and entertain audiences and the “greater freedom” allotted to painters working in the fine-arts tradition to imagine the magical, mysterious, and frightening elements of technology and capitalism (6). She correctly notes that while most art historians might argue that painting and popular illustration occupied “very different positions in nineteenth-century America,” she finds “the boundaries between them are more porous than one might expect” (7).
Schulman organizes her study both chronologically and thematically in six chapters that situate technological developments—and their visual representations—against aesthetic discourses prevailing in the fine arts. Chapter 1 examines the visual culture surrounding the spread of both the telegraph and the railroad, focusing specifically on depictions of the 1858 completion of a telegraph cable between Valentia Bay, Ireland, and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland (45), and the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad (23). She argues that visual representations of the railroad in particular reveal qualities of the “American gothic”—especially, fears of racialized others, including the Chinese who helped build the railroads and the newly freed African Americans who would now share in the benefits of rail travel (36–38). Schulman points out that these visual representations existed alongside the “celebratory images of unification” prompted by railroad and telegraph expansion (40). [End Page 111]
Chapter 2 focuses primarily on two paintings by little-known artist John Ferguson Weir to draw connections between America’s expanding iron industry and an artistic aesthetic she labels the “alchemical sublime” (57). Schulman argues that Weir’s The Gun Foundry (1864–66) and Forging the Shaft (1866–68) “explore the frightening and magical side of American industry” by returning to the earlier language of alchemy (57). She traces the influence in Weir’s work of “Romantic artistic practice,” but shifts away from the approaches taken by previous art historians who trace America’s adoption of the “passive mode” of artistic reception characterized by the treatises of Edmund Burke. Instead, Schulman argues for the importance of a “more active form of vision” based on the “underemphasized” theories of Immanuel Kant, an influence she sees infusing Weir’s work and the work of several of his mentors. As exemplars of the “alchemical sublime,” these paintings show the “intertwined threads of metallurgic production, artistic inspiration, and spiritual renewal,” all wrought by “a process of radical change” (68). Readers unfamiliar or unconcerned with the minutiae of nineteenth-century aesthetic doctrines may find the middle sections of Chapter 2 somewhat overblown; Schulman’s analysis of the images themselves carries the weight of the argument.
Chapter 3, “Swords into Ploughshares,” returns to an examination of popular periodical illustrations—in particular, those depicting acts of reconciliation between North and South during the period of Reconstruction. She argues that due...