Courtesy: Carol M. Highsmith Photography

Steel Industry

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Howard Norton Cook

U.S. Courthouse & U.S. Post Office, 7th & Grant Streets, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 15200
Owner:  Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration
Date:  1936
Placement:  courthouses
Collection:  US General Services Administration
Artwork Type:  paintings (visual works)
Material:  paint
Description:  Steel Industry by Howard Norton Cook is composed of vignettes that depict groups of men laboring in the different processes of iron and coal mining and steel production. In the lower left and lower right sections of the mural, Cook depicts workers extracting iron ore and coal, respectively, from mines deep underground. Iron is the natural element from which steel is created; coal is both the main fuel source used to transport iron ore from the mines and to power many of the steel mills. Cook’s careful rendering of these tightly arranged underground vaults provides a compositional framework upon which the aboveground mill scenes rest. Additionally, he separates the two distinct horizontal zones from one another by selecting color palettes indicative of the laborers’ activities. The blue and grey tonalities of the lower sections suggest an atmosphere of cool darkness, illuminated solely by the headlamps worn by the men.

In contrast, the upper sections glow with an orange light from the furnaces, the heat from which is almost palpable to the viewer. In the center scene, a group of men is clustered around the tapping and flow of the blast furnace. One man uses a paddle to cast crystals into the stream of molten iron, while others work the flow with long poles. Another man leans over to pour a ladle-full of molten metal into square sand moulds to be cooled. To the left, a man wearing a steel-mesh mask works the pour from a pig-iron machine, while men at the right of the center section monitor the motorized steel-pouring ladle as it discharges into upright steel ingot moulds. The culmination of the steel finishing process is demonstrated in the central lower section—men press steel slabs through a rolling mill—which Cook intended as both the formal and symbolic focal points of his composition.

The success of Pittsburgh’s steel mills was integral to the establishment of the city as an industrial center at the turn of the twentieth century. Cook’s mural not only represents the importance of manufacturing to Pittsburgh’s prosperity, but also emphasizes the contributions of the countless men who worked long hours in the mines, mills and foundries.

Information derived from GSA Fine Arts database linked here.
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