NARRATOR: This pristine painting depicts the River Rouge Plant, the first factory in America to assemble a complete automobile on-site. Charles Sheeler was hired by the Ford Motor Company to photograph the factory; later, he based this painting from 1932 on those photographs. River Rouge was a vast complex near Detroit, employing seventy-five thousand people. The painting is an homage to modern industry, reminiscent of a statement by President Calvin Coolidge: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple; the man who works there, worships there.”
But the painting is strangely devoid of human presence—it is a place built by and for machines. And eventually, many of the workers at the River Rouge plant were themselves replaced by more efficient machinery. During the early years of the Depression, the plant became the site of violent battles between plant management and the workers who were attempting to unionize in order to preserve their jobs.