[Home] [Data & Analysis] [Research] [Links] [Opposing Voices] [Illustrated London News]

The Evolving Relationship between Nature
and Industry as Documented in Art
Jennifer Caron
Elysia Lindfield
Megan Vandehey
History 256
April 16, 1996

There are multiple ways of interpreting and analyzing the paintings of the Industrial Revolution. Through the examination of four paintings from this time period the evolution of the relationship between nature and industry will be demonstrated. There was a shift that took place in which nature changed from working in harmony with industry to industry completely obliterating nature. Within each image there are several aspects that exemplify this changing relationship: the portrayal of people, the representation of the smoke, the presence or lack there of nature, and the depiction of the train.

The first image that we are going to consider is from circa 1830's England. The artist is unknown, but it can be assumed that he/she was a person who looked favorably upon the growth of industry. Therefore, as demonstrated in this image, there is harmony found in the coexistence of nature and industry. Neither nature nor industry dominates the canvas, although the train is in the foreground. The train is slightly dominant since it is the focal point of the picture, but both are seen as equal and complimenting parts.

Image 1. Coexistence of nature and industry

It is clear that the advent of the industry is looked upon with awe as the majority of people are focused inward towards the train. It presents a new and fascinating form of entertainment, and for the elite it is an extremely fashionable way to spend the afternoon. They are smiling, happy and pleased to be participating members in the support of man's innovations. Their witnessing man's seemingly limitless abilities would definitely bring a feeling of awe and an element of prestige. Even those of the old way of life, a life based on a dependence on and inter-relatedness with nature, have taken time to pause and admire the train. The carriage driver in the background has turned his head to examine the train and even his horse has pricked up his ears and turned to gaze upon it. Both are clearly impressed and admiring of the new invention and oblivious to the role that it plays in determining their fate.

Through examining the portrayal of smoke and dirt, or lack there of, it is obvious that this is a time when industry was still associated with the purity and cleanliness of nature. There is nothing in the picture besides the small puff of smoke that would draw attention to the polluting aspects of the train that will be discussed in later images. The small puff of smoke that is portrayed is just that, small. The artist having ended the picture before the smoke could start to billow and pollute. As a result, the train appears to be a clean object that presents no obstruction to the peaceful and harmonious ways of nature. The purity is further exemplified by the people in the picture. They are dressed in their best attire and not soiled by either the dirt or grime of the train. The women are in white, which we know would not be white for long if they were next to one of the early trains, and the men are very neat and tidy with silk hats so clean that they shine and reflect the sun.

An analysis of the train further supports the conclusions made about the time period of the picture, a time period when nature and industry had not yet been distanced and separated. The model of train in the image closely resembles "the Rocket" built by Stephenson in 1829. "The Rocket" was the first of the steam powered trains and marked the beginning of the growth of industry. This explains why the people are still in awe of the train, why it is still a novelty item restricted to mainly the upper class. It also explains why the proportions between the people and the train are fairly equal, the people not being dwarfed by the train and vice versa. The proportions can be explained because industry has not yet overpowered nature, industry is still relatively small and controllable.

This image was painted before the dissenting voices of de Tocqueville and Dickens surfaced. No one had come forward to talk of the dirt, filth and destruction attributed to industry. Therefore, the image most closely resembles the feelings put forth by Charleton and Ure. The influence of Charlton can be seen in the integration of urban and rural, the portrayal of the city folk enjoying the peace and beauty of the rural life. Ure can be seen in positive implications of industry as a nonpolluting and non intrusive. With Ure in mind the image can be seen as a promotion of the growth of industry, there are no negative side effects shown, and what people really valued, nature, is still a part of life:

Steam engines furnish the means not only of their support but of their multiplication. They create a vast demand for fuel; and while they lend their powerful arms to drain the pits and to raise the coals, they call into employment multitudes of miners, engineers, shipbuilders, and sailors, and cause the construction of canals and railways: and while they enable these rich fields of industry to be cultivated to the utmost, they leave thousands of fine arable fields free for the production of food to man, which must have been otherwise allotted to the food of horses. Steam engines moreover, by the cheapness and steadiness of their action, fabricate cheap goods, and procure in their exchange a liberal supply of the necessaries and comforts of life, produced in foreign lands. Footnote1
As time passed, there was a transformation of attitudes towards the train. The train was no longer seen as a novelty item exclusively for the upper class, but it became a form of transportation that could be utilized by all members of society. Passenger trains became more accessible to the middle and lower classes and the 'new toy' image of the 1830's was replaced in the 1870's by the image of a fast-moving powerful beast.

In the Gare Saint-Lazare painting of 1877, Claude Monet depicted a scene that embraced growing industry and revealed the imposing impact that modernization made on the surrounding environment and natural world. Since the painting depicts the city, there are no obvious signs of nature. Rather, the city becomes a cage, constructed out of materials like glass and metal, materials of the modern world that were strong enough to house the massive machine.

Image 2. Transition to prominence of industry. Gare Saint-Lazare, Claude Monet, 1877.

Industry becomes romantic and beautiful. The train exhales smoke not like a smoke stack polluting the air, but rather like a natural organism creating clouds on earth. The smoke and steam flow out, creating a beautiful surrounding for the train and the people within the scene. These blue, white and gray clouds are not hazardous or dirty but, remind us of beautiful clouds in the sky. The clouds of smoke also seem to pop off the canvas. They become three-dimensional adding an almost tactile quality to the work, which creates the same sensation you have when you are flying in a plane and feel as if you could almost reach out and grab a cloud.

A small part of nature still exists in this modern world of industry and reminds us that it is not overrun by ugly machines and destructive industry. A harmony between the natural world and the industrial world still exists in the mind of Monet, as industry, and more specifically the train, takes on the beautiful qualities of the natural world. It is interesting to note that although Monet started painting city scenes early on in his career, he rejected industry and the modern world and went on to only paint scenes of nature painting out the industrial aspects if they were part of the scene that he was painting.

Another important aspect of the painting is the depiction of people in relation to the train. This train serves as a passenger train and not as an industrial train. It carries people from the city of Paris to the surrounding suburbs, and does not carry goods like coal and iron ore. The train is massive and imposing, dwarfing the people and making them merely small blobs of colored paint. The people are anonymous and faceless, whereas the train is concrete and endowed with character. The small figures are similar to slaves working for their master, as the power of the machine grows and becomes more powerful than mankind. Man must work to maintain and keep up with his own creation.

The painting pulses with a sense of adrenaline. It depicts a moment in time that will change and be replaced by a new scene, a brief pause in the constant movement of life. Monet wanted to immerse us within the canvas and make us feel at one with the train, the way a traveler awaiting it's arrival would feel towards it. He wants to capture the intensity of the feelings and emotions of that time, the force and excitement people feel towards growing industry. George Rivière describes it best in his article for the magazine titled L'impressioniste.

In one of the biggest paintings the Gare Saint-Lazare, the train has just pulled in and the engine is going to leave again. Like an impatient and temporal beast exhilarated rather than tired by the long haul it has just performed, it shakes its mane of smoke, which bumps against the glass roof of the great hall. Around the monster, men swarm on the tracks like pygmies at the feet of a giant. Engines at rest wait on the other side, sound asleep. One can hear the cries of the workers, the sharp whistles of the machines calling far and wide, their cry of alarm, the incessant sound of iron work and the formidable panting of steam Footnote2.
When we observed the first two images our definition of nature included the following things: the ground, hills, trees, clouds and the sky itself. Compared to the first two paintings, in Image 3 and Image 4 there are fewer natural elements present and those which are present appear to be altered by man's influence. In Monet's painting, even though the trains are monstrous in size, the smoke of the steam engines resembles clouds and, thus, connects it to nature. The final two figures are in opposition to this impression as they show a disassociation between nature and industry.

Image 3 is dominated by some of the products of the industrial age. The trains sit in the foreground, unavoidable to the viewers' eyes while the background is filled with the tenements and factories of the city. Unlike the first two images, in this selection, nature is no longer in coexistence with the railway system since nature has been obliterated by the destructive hands of man. The only element of nature which remains is the excavated hillside, altered by man in order to accommodate the augmentation of the trains. As Tocqueville observed, "The soil has been taken away, scratched and torn up in a thousand places...The land is given over to industries use." Footnote3 Clearly the trains are the most attention grabbing element of the picture. The train engines and cars are painted with a great deal of detail relative to the first two images which we viewed. The lines of the tracks are clearly defined as are the individual components of each car, particularly the wheels of the engines. The use of contrasting light and dark are also employed to add dimension to the trains and accent the desolate landscape. Though there is differentiation between shades of gray this painting lacks color and life; the sky does not display the same brightness as the Monet, but instead is a dull grayish hue.

Image 3. Dependence on and domination of industry

This composition, devoid of both action and emotion, presents the stark realities of industrialization. As Andrew Ure said, "Skilled labor gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere onlookers of machines". Footnote4 Because this work lacks people it exemplifies the estrangement of man who becomes Ure's "mere onlooker." In the lower right hand corner of the image there are several engines and cars unattached from each other suggesting that they have remained idle. Both the clutter of these train cars and the fact that there is no smoke emanating from the other train brings to mind a train graveyard.

A variety of conclusions about the artist's intentions could be drawn based on the details of the image. Most likely the artist's purpose at the time of painting was not to point out the loss of nature brought on by the industrial revolution; however, today it provides a demonstration of how nature was sacrificed in order to provide the space necessary for new technologies. Though the dug out hillside is one element within the image, it does not command the viewers attention; instead it is the division between the tracks and the city. Perhaps someone observing this painting in the late nineteenth century would think little of the fact that the hill depicted in this image has been scraped or blasted away.

In Image 4 little remains of the natural elements which can be observed in the first two figures. In areas where the ground is visible the land is covered with crisscrossing railroad tracks. In some areas the ground under the tracks is darkly shaded, indicating that it is dirty. Like Image 3 there are no trees or grassy slopes to be seen within this image. Also of importance for our analysis, in contrast to a light portion of the sky on the left side of the image much of the sky is shaded in dark gray. The dark shading lacks clearly defined boundaries indicating perhaps that it is not cloudy, but instead the product of the trails of smoke emitted from the numerous smoke stacks throughout the city. The image

Image 4. Domination of industry and disappearance of nature

is reminiscent of Dickens' description of Coketown, it "was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever," and left the town "shrouded in a haze of its own which appeared impervious to the sun's rays." Footnote5 In addition to the polluted sky, running through the center of this painting is a brick wall and stone railing. The area to the left of the wall appears to be at a lower elevation than that to the right, suggesting that perhaps prior to the building of the wall a slope or hill had been present in this area.

More so than in any of the other images, Image 4 is cluttered with structures made up of clearly defined lines. Unlike the other paintings, the trains do not seem to dominate this image; instead they are one of a variety of man-made products of the industrial age which fill the canvas, including: the tracks; the poles and light posts; the wall; the factory; and the array of massive buildings in the background. Most likely trains were not the center of the artist's focus, but instead what is depicted is his impression of a city. Clearly though not the center of the piece, judging by the number of tracks which run back toward the city the trains were a significant element of towns and cities.

Unlike Image 1, in this image there are no upper or middle class observers to be found, instead there are only a few people who appear to be part of a working class as they stand on or near the tracks. The people in this image, though they do not appear to be dwarfed as in Monet's painting, are small compared with their surrounding environment. They are also dark and faceless, suggesting perhaps that their impressions of their surroundings are unimportant, or that they have no impressions of their environment, and are instead carrying out their daily routines.

With the advent of new technological advances like the invention of the train, there was a shift over time from glamorizing the train to the train becoming a mundane part of everyday life. As machinery became more common place nature became scarce. In the first painting we were presented with a scene that showed people standing in awe of the train and though they are welcoming it into their lives there is still a love of nature. In the Monet, we see the machine as an awesome beast to be obeyed and looked upon as an object of beauty. Then, as the machine becomes more common and accessible and is increasingly geared towards industrial purposes, the machine creates death, destruction and filth. As industry took hold nature was neglected and trampled upon as new tracks were laid for the next railroad line.

Andrew Ure, "The Blessings of the Factory System" from The Philosophy of Manufactures, 1835, as cited in editor Alasdair Clayre's Nature and Industrialization, Oxford University Press, 1977, p.71.

George Rivière from an article in L'impressioniste as cited in, Monet at Argenteuil, Paul Hayes Tucker, New Haven: Yale University Press, , 1982, p. 169.

Alexis De Tocqueville, "Manchester" from Journeys to England and Ireland, 1835, as cited in editor Alasdair Clayre's Nature and Industrialization, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 117.

Andrew Ure, "The Blessings of the Factory System," from The Philosophy of Manufactures, 1835, as cited in editor Alasdair Clayre's Nature and Industrialization, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 71.

Charles Dickens, "Coketown", from Hard Times, 1854, as cited in editor Alasdair Clayre's Nature and Industrialization, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 125.

[Home] [Data & Analysis] [Research] [Links] [Opposing Voices] [Illustrated London News]

This page was created by Julia Lee '99. It is maintained by Professor Robert Schwartz of the History Department, Mount Holyoke College.