Smoky Visions

A hundred years ago smoky factories meant far more than pollution. Artists painted them and chemistry companies proudly displayed the results.

By Jacqueline Boytim | April 4, 2013

Thick plumes of black smoke billow across the sky while a river below reflects the glowing orange tints of Dow Chemical’s factory buildings. Modern viewers of this scene might notice little more than pollution. Early 20th-century viewers saw much more.

During World War I the U.S. military relied heavily on Dow Chemical to produce the ingredients for explosives and medicines. As fighting drew to a close, Herbert Dow sought new ways to highlight the peacetime importance of his industry. Public art, he decided, might just suit his needs. In Germany, BASF and Bayer had recently hired artist Otto Bollhagen to portray their factories in print advertisements. And at the National Exposition of Chemical Industries, Dow saw and was impressed by paintings of National Aniline and Chemical’s factories.

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One of Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond’s industry-themed paintings created for Herbert Dow: Caustic Pot House Stacks, “A” Power Stack, “A” Pump Station, and “A” Evaporator Building, 1920.

Science History Institute

In the spring of 1919 painter Arthur Henry Knighton-Hammond sent Dow a letter offering his artistic services. Knighton-Hammond, the son of an English shopkeeper, began his training as an artist while apprenticed to a watchmaker. During World War I he was assigned to the British Ministry of Munitions’ Drawing Unit, where he developed his talent for portraying industrial scenes. Writing to Dow, he explained:

As a professional artist I have for some years been engaged . . . in making drawings and paintings of picturesque and effective scenes in engineering and chemical works. . . . These pictures include all kinds of designs (painted on the spot from nature) useful for propaganda purposes and as a pictorial record.

Dow invited Knighton-Hammond to spend six months in residence at his Midland plant painting scenes that would promote the wonders and achievements of his chemical industry.

The artist arrived in April 1920 and over the course of his six-month stay completed more than 40 works in watercolor, oil, and pencil, including Caustic Pot House Stacks, “A” Power Stack, “A” Pump Station, and “A” Evaporator Building. His earliest paintings were factory interiors that displayed the scale and grandeur of Dow’s production. In the warm summer months Knighton-Hammond painted exterior landscapes that juxtaposed the Dow buildings against the surrounding environment: some paintings feature a nearby apple orchard, while others, like Caustic Pot House Stacks, place the viewer near the serene Tittawabassee River. Much like some Romantic 19th-century painters before him, Knighton-Hammond embraced the aesthetic of steam and smoke, and used the same brushstrokes for factory emissions as for benign white clouds.

Dow was thoroughly pleased with his artist’s work. He displayed 25 paintings at the 1920 National Exposition of Chemical Industries in New York. Knighton-Hammond’s smoke-filled landscapes were happily received symbols of progress at a time when American Precisionist painters and artists of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Realism) movement portrayed industrial scenes as a celebration of modernity. In subsequent years his paintings were circulated among Dow offices throughout the United States and reproduced in company catalogs. They remain lasting symbols of the hope and pride Herbert Dow felt in his company, although their smoke-filled scenes no longer evoke the same optimism they once did.