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Elsie Driggs

(1898-1992)

American Precisionist

by Jessica Seaman

Elsie Driggs was a Precisionist American painter, born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1898. She took art classes at New Rochelle Public High School. She attended the Art Students League of New York under instruction from urban realists. With her industrial forms engulfed in smoke and haze she reflects the Early American Modernism. Her work is associated with other artists such as Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keefe.




Table of Contents

I. Biography

Elsie Driggs was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1898, and moved to New Rochelle, New York with her family in 1906. Both of her parents were interested in the arts; her mother, Roberta, attended many lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and her father, Louis, became an art collector late in his life. Thus Elsie was encouraged to follow her artistic aspirations. She took art classes at New Rochelle Public High School and painted during the summer in Dover Plains, New York. During World War 1, she briefly studied nursing but decided that painting was more for her.

She attended the Art Students League of New York from 1918 to 1922 under instruction from urban realists’ John Sloan, Robert Henri, and George Luks. Sloan helped ignite Drigg’s interest in Cezanne and the old masters, which would prove to be significant in her career. During this time, Driggs frequented the Daniel Gallery where she was exposed to many American modernist paintings. It would later become the center for Precisionist painters like Driggs. In 1922, she traveled to Rome and studied with modernist Maurice Sterne. She also became acquainted with Leo Stein, who introduced her to the work of Piero della Francesca and the Italian Futurist movement.

Upon her return to the States, Driggs served as a copyist and an assistant in the lecture department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she further studied and drew from the art of the masters. In the twenties, Driggs became one of the few female members of the Precisionist movement, which championed the machine age and sought to find beauty in its progress. She is most well known for paintings such as “Pittsburgh”(1928) and “Queensborough Bridge” (1927) which depict romantically articulated industrial forms engulfed in smoke and haze. She found inspiration for “Pittsburgh” in her memories of the steel mill where her father, an engineer, had worked when she was a child. In 1930, she was included in the “35 under 35” opening exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, garnering her recognition as a successful painter.

During the thirties, Elsie Driggs began to shy away from the Precisionist style. She received a summer-long painting fellowship through the Yaddo Foundation in Saratoga Springs. She exhibited her work at her dealer, Frank Rehn’s, gallery in the city. In 1935, she married fellow painter Lee Gatch, and together they moved to Lambertville, New Jersey. She and Gatch collaborated on commissioned mural projects for the Works Progress Administration, the Treasury Relief Art Project, and the Harlem River Housing Project.

Driggs gave birth to her daughter, Merriman, in 1938. She spent much of her married life supporting her husband’s career and devoting little time to her own. However, she became a teacher in 1945, and in the 1960’s returned to painting using mixed media and figurative subject matter. Proving to be one of the oldest and most productive Precisionists, she worked up until her death in 1992 in New York.

II. An Analysis of the Artist's Work

Elsie Driggs is best known for her work as a Precisionist and as an Early American Modernist. She is associated with the likes of Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keefe, as artists that promoted the industrial revolution as a source of national confidence. Driggs, like the others, used simplified geometric forms to capture the awe-inspiring breath of American development.

“Pittsburgh,” which permanently resides in the Whitney Museum, is Driggs’ most celebrated Precisionist work. It stands, alongside Sheeler’s “Upper Deck,” as an undeniable representation of the physical as well as the political landscape of the United States during the 1920’s. Upon visiting the factory before starting the painting, she was obstructed from entering because she was a woman and a feared labor agitator. She wrote, “But walking up toward my boarding house one night, I found my view. The forms were so close. And I stared at it and told myself, ‘This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is.’” “Pittsburg” captures both the unexpected exquisiteness as well as the looming darkness of the factory and industry in general. It has a spiritual quality to it, reminiscent of Piero della Francesca, for as Thomas C. Folk writes, “ …menacing or not, the factory had become the new temple.” He continues, “Driggs was an artist whose work often reflected the times.”

Done with oil on canvas, “Pittsburg” includes a factory complete with smoke stacks and cables, towering against the night sky. There is no human existence in sight, and the smoke that rises up through the painting makes the scene eerie yet magnificent. She later continued, “The particles of dust in the air seemed to catch and reflect the light to make a backdrop of luminous pale gray behind the shapes of simple smoke stack and cone. To me it was Greek.” Tellingly, critics dubbed her series of seven paintings done in this vein “a new classicism.” Also widely recognized are her “Queensborough Bridge” and “Aeroplane.” The former depicts the bridge, then a symbol of modernity, using partially abstract shapes and lines, while the later showcases the newest form of transportation in flight.

Though her fame today lies in her paintings from the industrial era, she actually concluded that chapter of her artistic career by her early thirties. Then, turning to less precise methods, she explored more whimsical and figurative forms using watercolors and other mediums. When working for the WPA in 1939, Driggs executed “La Salle’s Quest for the Mississippi” at the Rayville post office in Louisiana. Meant to be comprehensible to the public, the mural is representational and contains more narrative elements than most of her work. While in Lambertville, she also experimented with art based in Americana imagery.

In the 50s, after her daughter was born, Driggs began using collage and pastel in her watercolor renditions of plant forms like “lotus.”

III. Memberships

  • New York Society of Women Artists
  • IV. Exhibitions

  • 1922, 1931 Society of Independent Artists
  • 1926-35 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • 1930 Museum of Modern Art, “35 under 35,” opening show
  • 1930s Provincetown Art Assocation
  • 1934 Municipal Art Exhibition, R.C.A. Building, “A Mile for Art”
  • 1935, 1938, 1953 Rehn Gallery, New York City, (solo exhibition)
  • Daniel Gallery, New York City
  • American Society Psg
  • 1939 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1953 Baltimore Museum of Art
  • 1954 Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 1963 Whitney Museum of American Art, “The Precisionists”
  • 1980, 1982 Martin Diamond Gallery, New York City (retrospective)
  • 1980 New Jersey State Museum (retrospective; traveled to the Phillips Collection)
  • 1991 Elsie Driggs: A Woman of Genius, Trenton Museum
  • Royal Academy in Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Hayward Gallery, London
  • Akademie Kunste, Berlin
  • Akademie Kunste, Berlin
  • V. Collections

  • Baltimore Museum of Art
  • Barnes Collection
  • Corcoran Gallery
  • Montclair Art Museum
  • Phillips Memorial Gallery
  • Sheldon Memorial Gallery, Lincoln, NE
  • Whitney Museum of Art
  • Yale University Art Gallery
  • VI. Commissions

  • Animal cartoons and W. African gold weights for WPA
  • 1934 Harlem House, New York, NY
  • 1935 Post Offices in La Salle, Huntsville, and Rayville, LA
  • 1938 Indian Village, private commission, NY
  • VII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Adelson Galleries, Inc. “Elsie Driggs: 1898-1992”
    2. 2. Askart.com
    3. 3. Falk, Peter Hastings. Who Was Who In American Art 1964-1975. Vol. III: A-O. Sound View Press: CT.
    4. 4. Fielding, Mantle. Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. NY, Apollo Books: 1995. pg. 238.
    5. 5. Folk, Thomas C. Elsie Driggs: A Woman of Genius.
    6. 6. George Glazer Gallery www.georgeglazer.com/prints/art20c/driggslobsters.html
    7. 7. Haskell, Barbara. The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-1950. Whitney museum of American Art in association with W.W. Norton & Company. New York and London: 1999.
    8. 8. James A. Michener Art Museum: Bucks County Artist < www.michenerartmuseum.org/bucksartists/artist.php?artist=67>
    9. 9. Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London: 1994.
    10. 10. Lucie-Smith, Edward. Visual Arts in the Twentieth Century. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers.
    11. 11. Whitney Museum of American Art. “American Voices: Elsie Driggs” www.whitney.org/american_voices/532/index.html

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