Elsie Driggs, Blast Furnaces

The moment of American Industry

Elsie Driggs, Blast Furnaces, 1927, oil on canvas, 83.8 x 99.1 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2017)

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Key points

  • The 1920s was a decade of industrial growth and innovation in America. Plants like the one depicted in Elsie Driggs’s Blast Furnaces provided the necessary steel for many industries that prospered during these years. This economic expansion ended abruptly with the stock market crash of 1929.
  • Manufacturing towns, like Pittsburgh, had been the site of labor struggles throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were often violent clashes that pitted the workers against plant owners and managers.
  • While Elsie Driggs brings a classical sense of order and geometry to Blast Furnaces, her dark color palette and dehumanized approach to the subject suggest her ambivalence about modern industry and progress.

Go deeper

This painting at The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Read more about American industrialization during the 1920s

Learn more about labor struggles around the turn of the century

Watch a short video about the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 from PBS

Primary source documents about the Homestead Steel Strike at the Library of Congress

Explore primary source documents about the Homestead Strike

View photographs of the Jones & Laughlin steel plant where Driggs sketched

History of steel production in Pennsylvania

Listen to oral histories with steel workers

Explore a learning packet from the Michener Art Museum that contains a biography of Elsie Driggs and information about her process

More to think about

Elsie Driggs was not alone in bringing traditions of order and geometry to industrial subjects in the 1920s. Compare Blast Furnaces with Charles Demuth’s My Egypt (1927). What similarities do you notice? Do both paintings suggest the same feelings about modern industry? If not, what makes the difference between them?

Blast Furnaces and Pennsylvania Station Excavation by George Bellows both express  ambivalence towards industry and progress. Look closely at the two paintings. How do they communicate this ambivalence? Are there differences in the way they depict modern industry?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.