Precisionism: Art in the Industrial Age

By McMullen, Brianna | Art Education, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Precisionism: Art in the Industrial Age


McMullen, Brianna, Art Education


The Industrial Revolution in America and Europe changed the ways the world produced its goods. It also changed our society from an agricultural society to one dominated by manufacturing, and it gave artists new subjects and a new art style.

We can identify two Industrial Revolutions in recent history. The first, spanning nearly a century from 1760 to 1850, was based on coal and brought about steam engines, steel, railways, and mechanization. Inventions such as the cotton gin helped the manufacture of cotton goods by speeding up the process. Mass production made typically expensive items affordable by ordinary people. Steamships and steam locomotives allowed for the quicker transportation of raw materials used to produce finished goods, and they provided a faster mode of transportation for people who had previously traveled by horse and carriage. Steam engines allowed cities to move farther away from rivers and sources of water, and are still used today to help run nuclear power plants.

The second Industrial Revolution, from the late 19th century through the 1930s, was based on electricity and oil, and abetted by the First World War's demands for new materials and new techniques. These in turn became the basis for new permanent industries-the most important was electric power, which became widely available for the first time. Electricity affected technology and changed the nature of social and home life with powered machines, light at night and the telephone and telegraph, the first instantaneous long-distance communication devices for public use. Petroleum began to be widely used as an alternate energy source, and private vehicles changed the public transportation patterns.

Industrialization provided great opportunities, but along with this great leap in technology, there was an overall decline in the socioeconomic and cultural situation of many people who struggled to maintain control over their lives in an economy dominated by the harsh and dangerous working conditions of huge industries. In the late 19th century, the industrial workforce grew, as factories needed more and more workers. Millions of new immigrants, primarily from Europe, came to America to escape the poverty and oppression in their homelands. The new pressures on America's industrial cities resulted in crowded and unhealthy tenements and a vast population of poor people even while the industrialists grew rich. It was in this environment that the first systems of public high schools emerged, in part a response to a need to educate and "Americanize" huge numbers of young people brought together through very different life stories.

Some artists responded to the changed conditions by documenting realistically the squalor and suffering of urban life, such as the artists in the Ashcan School, who abandoned decorous subject matter and portrayed the grittier aspects of American life.This group included such artists as Robert Henri, John Sloan and George Luks.

But another result of this new industrial age, especially after World War I, was a short-lived but powerful new American art movement called Precisionism, most evident in painting, but visible also in drawing, photography, and print-making, focusing on industrial and mechanical subjects. Precisionism originated in the 1920s, allied with European Cubism's fascination with shape and geometric form and with Italian Futurism's emphasis on the details of modern cities.The movement was important to a growing interest in modern art and its evolution away from strict realism.The Precisionists chose to depict the 20th century's new dependence on technology and the machine in a way that celebrated the efficiency and promise of industrial work: the style created clearly defined, even idealized images of industrial subject matter including factories, machinery, and the people who operated them. American Precisionist artists, with their celebratory images of progress, also reflected a pride in their country during a period of economic and political struggle -the growing industry in the United States was a symbol of the country's power and achievements. …

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