Brain Pickings

Industrial Sublime: How New York City’s Bridges and Rivers Became a Muse of Modernism

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How a city of contrasts inspired a generation of artists.

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, a cathedral thirteen years in the making permanently changed the riverscape of New York City. In a short period of time, three other major bridges would join it — the Williamsburg Bridge was begun in 1896, the Manhattan Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge in 1901. The waterway was now a river of canyons, and the city became a spectacular form of natural and manmade wonders. Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York’s Rivers, 1900-1940 (public library), the book companion for the Hudson River Museum exhibition of the same title, reveals how in the first half of the twentieth century, these manmade marvels embracing New York’s river banks enthralled a generation of influential artists who had once turned to nature as their muse.

'East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1928 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For a youthful America in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the painters of the Hudson River School created a vision of arcadia in the new world, with the waterway at its very heart. The Catskill Mountains and the New Jersey Palisades became as worthy of contemplation as any poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth.

America, with its vast frontier, could be a place of Romantic wonder.

'A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning,' by Thomas Cole, c. 1844 (Brooklyn Museum)

But what some Hudson River painters delicately left out of many of their views were the encroaching factories and docklands on New York’s picturesque rivers. In Samuel Coleman’s Storm King on the Hudson, a factory competes with a local mountain called Storm King for sublime attention: one is submerged in clouds, the other creates its own industrial cloud.

'Storm King on the Hudson' by Samuel Coleman, 1866. (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

'The Hudson River from Hoboken' by Robert Walter Weir, 1878 (Detriot Insitute of the Arts)

The river itself became a place of business as sailboats, steamboats, and tugboats crowded the water like a highway. But the success of a city could be defined in the image of its bustling waterway, and artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Sloan became fascinated with the intersections and collisions of nature and industry: the edge of a dock, the darkness under a bridge, the lights along the span of Queensboro at night.

'The East River' by Carlton Theodore Chapman, 1904. (New York Historical Society)

At the turn of the century, Gotham was a city of stark visual contrasts: the brightest day could be met with a shadow from a building that could cast a viewer into night, and electric lights might turn the blackest city park into a bright new square. Sublimity could be found in these contrasts, where joy could turn to fear along any street.

'The Bridge: Nocturne' by Julian Alden Weir, 1910 (Smithsonian)

By 1920, life in America had become primarily urban; according to the census, for the first time more people lived in cities than in the country.

'Office Buildings from Below,' photograph by Paul Strand, 1917. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Even in the 1930s, fifty years after its completion, the Brooklyn Bridge remained a source of inspiration. More architecturally beautiful than its East River counterparts, it was the first hint of the industrial sublime in New York, and its most enduring symbol.

'Brooklyn Bridge' by Ernest Lawson, c, 1917. (Terra Museum of Art)

Hart Crane’s The Bridge became an American response to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with the East River and Brooklyn Bridge as its inspiration:

A tugboat, wheezing wreaths of steam
Lunged past, with one galvanic blare stove up the River.
I counted the echoes assembling one after one,
Searching, thumbing the midnight on the piers.
The blackness somewhere gouged glass on a sky.
And this thy harbor, O my city, I have driven under….

'Power' by Edward Bruce, c. 1933. (The Phillips Collection)

Industrial Sublime is a vision of New York that recounts a time when artists reconceived the beauty, terror, and awe of the place they called home, as the city’s rolling hills could no longer resist the greatest grid amidst a city at the height of metamorphosis.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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