Steamboat on the Ohio, Thomas Anschutz, 1896
Really, though it’s a greater emblem of blossoming American industry than the quaint traditions and relics of a small rivertown might suggest. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, reinforced by Thomas Hart Benton’s mural in the Missouri State capitol, reminds us of the power of the coal-fired vessel to threaten the gentle, downstream meandering of our nation’s youth, whether Huck and Jim in the the novel of Anshutz’s naked boys here.
These are no strangers, either. Anshutz was a Thomas Eakins protégé, who took interest in both the technique and the controversy of painting the young nudes from his teacher’s practice, which, not incidentally for a dawning technological age, intermingled with the developing enterprise of photography. But, while Eakins would take his liberated habits with study of the nude too far for the propriety of the time, resulting in his firing from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Anshutz would turn on his former master, taking over his teaching position and subsequently teaching another generation of American artists–Luks, Demuth, Sheeler, Marin, Glackens, Henri.
What, then, is the dilemma that the riverboat and the factory present? Historical accounts and simple logic indicate that the waters were foul and treacherous. Is the river a buffer between the carefree pursuits of youth and the hard work that lies ahead? Is it a pitchfork raised in protest of the hazards faced by the youthful poor? Anshutz cultivated his early reputation in Ironworkers Noontime, a canvas that showed laborers with an angry frankness that assaulted the sensibilities of his more genteel viewers.
Or is the river a source of both physical and esthetic pleasures? The Impressionist brushwork that had originally shocked Parisians was a decades-old set of techniques by which the harshness of the Industrial landscape could, in the hands of a master, be condensed into experiences of more peaceful contemplation. Pittsburgh’s Aaron Harry Gorson, an Anshutz pupil, ingratiated himself to a wide variety of audiences through stunning, dramatic and appealing canvases that turned the steel mills into sprawling compositions of painterly drama, downplaying the actualities of economic injustice and environmental pollution. If Anshutz runs a similar risk, our intervening years may be to blame. We now lament the loss of mills and riverboats with a nostalgia not unlike the yearning for lost youth.