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Industry in Art: Pittsburgh 1812-1920

By Rina C. Youngner
University of Pittsburgh Press, 188 pp, $29.95

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Pittsburgh's insecurity about its industrial heritage, it seems, is almost as old as the heritage itself. Or so one concludes from Industry in Art, Rina Youngner's soon-to-be-released survey of early depictions of Pittsburgh. In canvassing these images, Youngner offers up a portrait of her own: of a city that celebrates its industry while often turning a blind eye to industry's harmful costs.

 

 

Boosterism has always been a cottage industry in Pittsburgh. As Youngner demonstrates, in 1833 the Pittsburgh Gazette was widely faulted for insufficient municipal pride -- just because it published a poem about "a little girl who worked in an English cotton mill." If people objected to depictions of child labor across the ocean, imagine how hostile they were toward second-guessing industrial practices at home.

 

Not surprisingly, popular images of the city concealed as much as they showed. It's no accident, for example, that William Coventry Wall's 1881 image of the Homestead Works shows the mill from a distance, surrounded by verdant wooded hills. As Younger writes, in this Edenic view, "there is no apparent sacrifice: nature encloses industry; the sky, the deep river, the woods -- nothing seems changed by this pocket of industry."

 

There were more honest depictions of the Smoky City, such as those of Charles Stanley Reinhart. Youngner, a locally based art-history scholar, rightly lauds the the drawings of Joseph Stella, whose work was unusual in that it depcited "the mill workers as individuals, and ... their lives as a struggle." But for the most part, such illustrations were commissioned by magazines or used to illustrate reform-minded efforts to document the hardships of the working class. Fine art produced for local patrons, by contrast, was often less forthright.

 

Comparing two early-20th-century artists, Jean-Emile Laboureur and Aaron Gorson, Yougner finds that Laboureur's work sold poorly -- despite his superior social connections. In part, she writes, this was because he "focused on the poor urban areas of Pittsburgh and on the workers." Moreover, intimate portraits of workers on the shop floor "did little to enhance the prestige of the owner and nothing to glamorize factories." Gorson, meanwhile, tried to capture not "plebeian reality" but "dramatic beauty. His large paintings ... present the factories as objects of artistic drama. ... Gorson never alluded to the workers' homes nor does he examine the area close to the plant."

 

Also noteworthy is Youngner's chapter on David Gilmour Blythe, Pittsburgh's foremost 19th-century genre painter. As Youngner points out, Blythe could scathingly depict the excesses of industrialization -- especially its environmental costs. But his work also sometimes reflected bigotry toward recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland. To prove her point, Youngner smartly contrasts an image of an "ideal American workingman" with a painting of two shiftless and conspiring immigrants.

 

For both good and bad, Youngner's book demonstrates an attention to detail that would do credit to a 19th-century lithographer. There are times when her meticulousness is valuable: When one artist features black workers on a shop floor, Youngner takes time to clarify how limited the job opportunities for African Americans actually were. But too often, her text veers from scholarly into tedious. Take this description of a lithographer's place of business: "The establishment occupied the third and fourth floors of the Brewers' Building. The drawing rooms and offices were on the third floor, the printing presses on the fourth, and the final pressing, trimming, and finishing rooms on the third floor again." Yeah -- so?

 

Early chapters, meanwhile, dwell on the illustrations for stock certificates and company letterheads. Presumably, these are included because they represent some of the first graphic depictions of Pittsburgh industry. But they simply aren't very interesting, and Youngner does little to make them so.

 

The book might have been better off if Youngner had ignored such dross, and focused instead on drawing more explicit connections between art and power. There's a reason many of Blythe's paintings are housed in the Duquesne Club today, after all. Blythe may have objected to environmental despoilation, but his anti-immigrant prejudices were not uncommon among the industrialists whose factories they worked in. (America "has lately served as an asylum for the spendthrifts, the desperadoes, and other criminal classes of the Old World," wrote Thomas Mellon, patriarch of the banking clan, in his memoirs. The Irish Catholics especially suffer from "malevolence, deceitfulness, indolence and reckless unthrift.")

 

Like a view from what was once known as Coal Hill -- we call it Mount Washington today -- Youngner's book offers some compelling vistas. But as with the city itself back then, you'll have to wave away some smoke in order to see them clearly.

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