ObeliskObelisk Art History

Industrial Revolution

Mass production, the camera, and a return to nature

In the first years of the nineteenth century, a series of mechanical inventions changed the course of human culture instantly and permanently. James Watt’s created a new form of steam engine, powering factories and launching international travel with more efficient steam ships. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Edmund Cartwright’s power loom created a massive textile boom, with exponentially faster production leading to a commoditization of a previously craft culture. Benjamin Huntsman’s crucible steel and James Neilson’s Hot blast furnace would make iron and steel the building materials of choice, ushing in the era of the skyscraper.

But as the factories filled, artists’ practice was radically and permanently changed by a very simple invention. In 1843, John Goffe Rand invented the tin paint tube. Where before paint was mixed in the studio and dried out quickly, preserving the paint in a tube allowed artists mobility for the first time. So, paradoxically, while the Industrial Revolution drew millions into cities and urban centers, it sent artists outside. Art of the Industrial Revolution tends to be pastoral, plein-aire, more often a reaction against the speed and metal of the industrial age. We see the birth of Romanticism, Impressionism, and the Hudson River School dedicated to the majesty of nature. With travel more affordable via steamship, artists travel around the globe, leading to the first blendings of cultural style and influence, but it would take nearly a hundred years and a world war to teach artists to embrace industrialization.

Reed Enger, "Industrial Revolution, Mass production, the camera, and a return to nature," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 20, 2016; last modified May 20, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/industrial-revolution/.

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