Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Art of Technology

Technology always exists within the culture.  Technology also shapes the culture in ways both subtle and obvious.  But technology would have been one of the last subjects of interest to early 19th century American artists.  The Back Story of America was the opening of a virgin continent, the taming of the wilderness, and the westward expansion that was for some our Manifest Destiny.

The earliest landscape artists painted bucolic scenes of the Hudson River Valley - from which they drew their group identity, becoming known as the Hudson River School.  Technology in the landscape was hard to see even in the 1820s.  There might be a steamboat in the distance on the Hudson but most often painters such as Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) painted their landscapes without machines.  But even Cole payed tribute to the settling of the land in his 1836 painting, The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northhampton).  Cole's painting is seen as one of the first clear visual statements of the difference between the settled land with well-tended farms (as seen on the right) and the yet unspoiled but ominous wilderness (on the left).

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Railroads came to America in 1829.  The railroad became the embodiment of technology change made visible, or to use Leo Marx's phrase, the railroad was "the machine in the garden."  Artists still didn't make technology a prominent feature in their paintings but it did start to have some presence, perhaps being represented by a distant steam locomotive seen in the far distance.  The landscape itself still dominated.  

As the 19th century progressed, the emerging place of technology became self-evident.  Artists began to be commissioned for paintings featuring technology as the main subject.  This was clearly the case with what has come to be seen today as the best example of 19th century technology art, "The Lackawanna Valley," by George Inness (1825 - 1894).

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, ca. 1855
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This painting has an interesting history.  It was apparently commissioned by the directors of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad either for use in advertising or to decorate the walls of the company's offices. No one knows for sure. Inness was only about 30 years old when he painted it and was newly returned from an extended stay in Europe.  The scene depicted is of the Lackawanna's engine house (the round building in the center distance) in Scranton, PA. The picture is an idealized rendition of (what was in reality) a much flatter and uglier landscape as can seen in contemporary photographs of Scranton. But the picture places the train smack dab in the center and the engine house prominently in the distance.  Despite these placements, the landscape still speaks of tranquillity and the rural life.

Apparently, the railroad directors didn't much like the picture.  There is no mention of it in any surviving records and there are no engravings made from it for advertising.  When Inness had been in France, he had become enthralled with the Barbizon School of painting which was moving away from the older style of the Hudson River School. Inness was paid $75 to paint the work, money he desperately needed at this early stage in his career.  There isn't even agreement on the date of the painting or its original title.  It has become popularly known as The Lackawanna Valley but it was never named that by the artist.  It might have been painted in 1857, rather than 1855, because that was the year that the engine house was completed.  

Many decades latter, in 1891, George Inness was in a junk shop in Mexico City and he found his painting (which was quite large at 34 in by 50 in) piled in a corner.  The shop owner told Inness that he had acquired it in a load of old office furnishings.  Inness bought his old painting back for a few dollars, which is the only reason we have it at all.  The painting now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC as one of the great masterpieces of 19th century American art. 

Technology both creates culture and is created by culture. From time-to-time, I hope to put some other artwork on the blog. It helps me, at least, to see the world as a whole.


The Railroad in American Art, Representations of Technological Change, Edited by Susan Danly and Leo Marx, The MIT Press, 1988.

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