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Consequences of Industry: Past and Present

The work of art I chose was Pittsburgh by Elsie Driggs. It was created in 1927 with oil paint on canvas. The main subject of this painting seems to be some kind of factory. It is painted using only shades of gray. As a result, the environment seems very sterile, gloomy, cold, and even hostile. However, the artist did not use colors that are unrealistic. Instead, she simply painted a cloudy sky with a black factory surrounded by grayish steam. The central items in the composition are four black industrial chimneys. Other parts of the painting include what appears to be the roof of a factory and a system of steel pipes. 

Based on the time period and the depiction, I believe this was the artist’s attempt to criticize industrial society. At this point in history, the traditional American agrarian lifestyle had changed. Instead of living in the country, many people began living in cities. Instead of working on farms, more people began working in factories. And instead of doing work according to their own schedules and with their families, people began to work on set shifts away from home. These changes were not favorable to the more independent, rewarding, and “outdoorsy” laboring that took place on farms. It was also made worse by a lack of restrictions on working hours, wages, and types of work. As a result, many people began to see factories as prisons where extremely repetitive and dangerous work had to be performed. The steel pipes and tall chimneys immediately make me relate this piece to that time period. This painting also makes me feel the absolute misery that factory workers had to go through.  

Although this work of art is from another era, it still has a message that applies to contemporary society. If nothing else, it conjures up a dreary future and forces the viewer to consider the effects of industrialization on our society. Many would say that as a result of industrialization, materialism and greed have become the main components of modern lifestyles and our planet is in jeopardy. This seems to be a theme in the work, even if it was not intended or recognized by the artist. Driggs portrays a gray and seemingly lifeless environment, composed of metal, concrete, and a smoggy sky. As a lover of history, I enjoyed this painting a lot because I immediately associated it with a time and place in the past, and it brought me closer to the lifestyle that others experienced during this time period.

By Henry

Elsie Driggs, Pittsburgh, 1927  31.177
Elsie Driggs, Pittsburgh, 1927. Oil on canvas, 34 1/4 × 40 in. (87 × 101.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney  31.177