The late nineteenth century not only saw advances in pure science, but the technologies of the industrial revolution scaled up into large factories, and became commonplace in the lives of many living in the cities.
Large-scale iron production had already started in North America. In 1857, investors opened a site for the production of iron primarily for the growing railways across Canada, and a few years later William Armstrong painted those Toronto Rolling Mills (1864). By this time, it was the largest iron mill in Canada, and the largest manufacturing industry in the city, but it was soon surpassed by steel mills and shut down in 1873.
John Ferguson Weir took his rather dark realism before an unusual motif for American painting at that time – the hot, harsh, and dangerous world of the West Point Iron and Cannon Factory, in The Gun Foundry (1866). The moment shown is the casting of a Parrott Gun, in the foundry responsible for making most of the large guns used by the Union forces during the Civil War.
Weir’s Forging the Shaft is a replica which he painted in 1874-7, after the original of 1868 was destroyed by fire. It shows the same foundry, this time working the massive propellor shaft for an ocean liner, more a symbol of peace and trade than past conflict.
Adolph von Menzel’s The Iron Rolling Mill from 1875 gives a good impression of the crowded, sweaty, and dangerous environment in which iron and steel workers spent – and sometimes lost – their lives.
Production of steel on an industrial scale started after 1857, with the introduction of the Bessemer Process. Constantin Meunier’s undated Steel Foundry must therefore have been painted during the 1860s or later.
Not all industries were heavy, hot or sweaty. Charles Frederic Ulrich painted a young apprentice drinking during a moment’s pause in his work in The Village Printing Shop, Haarlem (1884).
Christian Ludwig Bokelmann’s oil sketch of a Lead Mine in Selbeck (1888) has a more subtle social message for an ancient industry which had long recognised the toxicity of the lead which it worked with, but which continued to employ children.
Another Naturalist artist, Jean-Eugène Buland, tackled more complex issues in his Un Patron, or The Apprentice’s Lesson (1888). After France’s ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, efforts were made to make France more industrial and more modern. Here a young boy is being trained by the foreman to make a cogwheel, when many would have preferred him still to be at school. Buland was no stranger to modern technology himself, using photographs extensively in the preparatory work for this painting, to capture its wealth of detail.
Painting men and women at work was by no means confined to Naturalists, with their attention to fine detail. Alessandro Milesi’s undated The Spinners is a much looser oil sketch which could qualify as being an Impression.
Maximilien Luce painted many works showing people at work, as his style moved on from Neo-Impressionism to Post-Impressionism during the 1890s. His Charleroi Foundry, Casting (1896) shows this well, and is one of a long series he painted showing those working in heavy industry.
The subject of Louis Muraton’s The Photographer, painted before 1901, is rocking a glass plate in a bath of developer, in his improvised darkroom, a highly contemporary image, and harbinger of things to come.
With the decline of Naturalism in the early twentieth century, the emphasis on workers weakened, and artists like Hans Baluschek returned to painting heavy plant and processes in his Steel Rolling Mill (1910).
Finally, Robert Sterl’s Ironworkers of 1919 is an oil sketch showing workers at one of the Krupp plants in Germany.