The Industrial Sublime and Power Places

One of the earliest paintings of the industrial sublime could be Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 by Philip James de Loutherbourg, a German artist who migrated to London and become a theatrical designer. His penchant for the dramatic was evident in his paintings, which often followed the formulas for theater: repoussoir in the foreground, middle ground, and backdrop. In the Coalbrookedale painting of the Madeley Wood Furnaces, he created a diagonal push back on the left with a hillock rising diagonally, while on the left the foreground is established by a diagonal leaning to the right. This semicircle at the edge of the stage frames an early factory in the middle space, silhouetted against the billowing smoke of a coal fire, burning red and yellow against a blue-gray evening sky. Nature nearly obliterated was represented by a brave tree on the left, wedged between industrial buildings, while the foreground was littered with machine parts so large that they nearly dwarf the symbol of old-fashioned physical labor, the white horse, straining at the center bottom. The humans are also dwarfed by the spectacle unfurling beyond them and the real subject for the artist is the fire and the smoke.


Philip de Loutherbourg. Coalbrookedale at Night (1801)

In writing about this painting in 2008, Mike McKieman evoked a sixteenth-century term “fire landscape, to define the project, noting that early fire paintings “..were used as devotional images for the contemplation of hell and damnation in Antonite hospitals, where syphilis and other inflammatory conditions were treated. De Louthebourg’s adoption of this format seems very apposite as the Madeley Wood foundry was also known as Bedlam.” The author continued, “The painter presents the iron foundry as a vision of Hell but he encapsulates the complexities of the prevailing attitude toward industry in England at the time and sets the industrial scene in a sublime landscape. The painting, which has a theatre stage set quality, is both a celebration and a warning. The smoke from the chimneys is not only a symbol of economic productivity and wealth but also a noxious indicator of industrial pollution. Coalbrookdale, possibly the world’s first coke-fired blast furnace, was then a site of considerable controversy.” The origins of industry in this region of England were surprisingly early, dating back to the seventeenth century. McKieman stressed, “The picture, not surprisingly, has become an iconic symbol of the Industrial Revolution in England. The development of coke smelting in this area of Shropshire by Abraham Darby and his family in the 18th century transformed the production of iron and Coalbrookdale’s unique combination of natural resources enabled it to manufacture Britain’s first iron rails, iron bridge, iron boat and steam locomotive.” 

Although England certainly led Europe in industrialization, America was not too far behind in the transformation of the pastoral rural landscapes into factory sites. In his well-known book, American Technological SublimeDavid E. Nye discussed how the idea of the industrial or the modern as being sublime–rather than nature itself–coincided with the development of the concept by Edmund Burke. He pointed out that “changes in production led to a new aesthetics of industry. This was by no means a universal story. In England, the steam-powered factory was already assimilated into the sublime by the 1780s, before the factory system existed in the United States. As early as 1758, only a year after Burke’s work on the sublime appeared, the view of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale prompted English artists to make engravings of it. These engravings treated the factory as beautiful, but within a generation, other artists had fully assimilated it into the sublime.  had engravings of Coalbrookdale contrasted its beauties with sublime horrors.” By 1801, the Coalbrookdale foundery was not just sublime, it was insane in its terror. However, as Nye pointed out the situation in England was very different from that of America, “The Americans relied on abundant water power, the English on steam. This technical difference meant that English factories were concentrated in cities, creating an industrial landscape, while American factories dotted the countryside and became the basis for smaller communities that seemed in harmony with their surroundings.”

As late as 1856, George Inness was able to show this incursion into unmarked and untouched landscapes with his painting, The Lackawanna Valley. The painting is a landmark work for many reasons, not the least of which is the contrast between the natural idea of “valley” with the unnatural locomotive pounding down the path of a railroad that uncoils like a snake from the roundhouse. To make way for the train, the garden (of Eden) was cut down, leaving only stumps. As the pulsing engine spews smoke and sparks and noise, a young farm boy is overlooking a landscape that has evolved from a factory situated to the right which, in turn, necessitated the railroad to take the industrial products, termed “sterile” by Thomas Jefferson, to market. The painting would fall into the category of the picturesque and there is no trace of the sublime in the classical and apparently peaceful assimilation of manufacturing into Jefferson’s agrarian Arcadia. But the painting is also the quintessential illustration of the metaphor developed by Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964). During the eighteenth century in England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, politicians, and philosophers debated over how humans in that modern age should live and many wrote of the benefits of taking a middle route between the insatiable human desire to exploit nature and the other possibility of leaving the land to itself. The author quoted Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, a lament upon the Enclosure Movement in the countryside in which the common lands, open to all since medieval times, were closed off by the owners to the estates the better to take advantage of economic opportunities. The march of industry, then, moved in lockstep with permanent changes in country life, each driven by economic and technological processes. Thus Marx also wrote of the lost opportunity to make of England the “green and pleasant land,” the famous phrase from William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem of 1811. Decades before Blake wrote, the dream was already in jeopardy:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”


George Inness. The Lackawanna Valley  (1856)

Marx wrote, “Attractive as it was, the idea of a society of the middle landscape was becoming less easy to believe in during the 1780s. In England the process of ‘improvement,’ or what we should call economic development, already seemed to have gone too far. By then the enclosures were destroying the vestiges of the old, rural culture, and the countryside was cluttered with semi-industrial cities and dark, satanic mills. Ath this juncture Englishmen had been in the habit of projecting their dreams upon the unspoiled terrain of the New World.” Marx noted that in 1785, the same year that Thomas Jefferson published Notes on Virginia, where he expounded upon his pastoral vision for America, a pamphlet The Golden Age, opened with the title page promising a vision of “Future Glory of North-America. The author quoted Virgil and then wrote, “Thus England/The iron past, a golden Age shall rise/And make the whole World happy, free, and wise.” But the Industrial Revolution and the rising of the factory system in England was a warning bell for Americans, who had so much land which lent itself so well to a farming culture, were at first innocent of the impending threat of technology. As always there were those who put together what seemed to be disparate conditions and knit them into a prophecy for the future. Speaking to “Friends of American Manufacturers,” Tench Coxe, a Philadelphia merchant and assistant to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, made a compelling case what Marx termed a place for the machine in the garden of America as early as 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. In contrast to Jefferson who lived in a rural economy, supported by slave labor, and proposed that England be a manufacturing partner to a pastoral America, Coxe, as Marx stated,

“is more interested than most in long-range economic goals. Convinced that political independence ultimately will require greater economic self-sufficiency, he insists upon the need for a ‘balanced economy’ and thus, above all, for native manufactures. Without them, the young nation’s prosperity and security always will be precarious..Once the new technology is brought into the picture, Coxe is saying, the prospect changes completely..To appreciate Coxe’s prescience it is necessary to recall how conjectural these ideas were in the summer of 1787. Although machine production was becoming an accepted fact of life in England, it was little more than an idea in America..Beneath the surface of economic life, the colonies had accumulated a rich fund of technical knowledge and skill, soon to be revealed in the achievements of inventors like Evans, Fitch, Whitney, and Fulton. When all of these allowances have been made, however, the fact remains that it was Coxe who first gathered these scattered impulses and ideas into a prophetic vision of machine technology as the fulcrum of national power.”

Fifty years later, George Inness, working on a commission from the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, presented what was considered to be an advertisement for the harmonious relationship between the machine and the garden. It should be noted that Inness, a member of the Hudson River School, had a career painting Claudian landscapes in upstate New York. While the job for the Railroad is arguably his most famous work today, this painting was a one-off during his career. But this painting was prophetic for the Lackawanna Valley was a valley of coal and in his book, Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania’s Working Landscape, Bill Conlogue related that, by 1869 a history of the Valley, Horace Hollister was already pointing to the damage mining interests had done to the nature of the region. “But then again,” Conlogue wrote, “astounded by the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, American tourists flocked to Industrial sites, including coal mines, to marvel at human efforts to improve nature.” According to the author, the “dominant industry, coal mining shaped the region’s worldview..Until the mid-twentieth century, the majority of the people in Lackawanna Valley who were employed in mining and its attendant business worked for the coal cartel that had dominated the region almost since the beginning of the industry.” Conlogue pointed out that fifty years later, by the early twentieth century, the Lackawanna Valley painted by George Inness had become an industrial “sacrifice zone.”


John Pfahl. Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania (1982)

Enter John Pfahl and his photographic study of Power Places in America. Like the Lackawanna Valley, the sites he examined were sources of power, the kind of power that makes modern life possible. Unlike Inness, Pfahl is never interested in the picturesque alone, his concern is always the industrial sublime, the sublime consequences of technology, the contemporary machine in the garden. This garden is the American Pastoral landscape where one finds the classical landscapes, the grid structure, the dominant horizon line, and the off-sets of the repoussoirs on either side. Into these gardens, technology has arrived. Where Phahl and Inness connect is the setting of these power places. As the photographer noted, “I have frequently noticed that the electric power companies have chosen the most picturesque locations in America in which to situate their enormous plants. This is likely due to a need for rivers and waterfalls to propel their turbines, or for lakes and oceans to cool their reactors. It may also attest to the importance placed upon being isolated from large population centers for safety considerations. Whatever the reason, it sometimes seems that there is an almost transcendental connection between power and the natural landscape.” If one can argue that Inness, in his role as an advertiser for a railroad company, announced the coming of a coal-fueled economy, then Phafl, in his own time, examined the successor to coal, atomic energy. He said, “In order to make my observations rise to the metaphoric plane, I deliberately searched out a variety of power sources in addition to nuclear, including fossil fuel, hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal. I felt that concentrating on nuclear power alone would detract from my larger ambitions and reduce the project to a specific political agenda. I gradually learned that the other, supposedly more benign, sources of energy all had their dark sides, that the actual harm done to the environment was at least as disturbing as the potential harm from nuclear mishaps. Familiar dangers seem to get preempted by unfamiliar ones.”

The next post will continue the discussion on Pfahl and his studies of industrial technology in the late twentieth century.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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