Artist’s wintry muse was Pennsylvania industrial landscape

By , on December 26, 2017


PITTSBURGH — Ernest Fiene, whom Esquire magazine called “the regional artist of the metropolis,” excelled at painting New York cityscapes and its harbour bustling with tugboats, ferries and ocean liners.

The German-born artist found a very different subject matter as he drove across Pennsylvania and West Virginia during the brutal winter of 1935-36. While drawing blast furnaces, coal tipples, coke ovens and other industrial structures, the 41-year-old artist suffered chilblains, a condition that causes hands and feet to itch and turn red or blue.

He later painted “Coal Breaker, Pennsylvania,” which depicts a processing plant that removes impurities from anthracite coal and reduces it to smaller pieces that can be used for fuel. This painting was chosen for the Christmas Eve front page by Post-Gazette publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block and executive editor David M. Shribman. It’s the 12th time the newspaper has highlighted the work of an outstanding artist in its Christmas edition.

“Coal Breaker, Pennsylvania” is on view at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. Fiene also painted the 1936 picture featured last year, “Night Shift – Aliquippa Entrance To The J&L Works.”

Blizzards and record cold marked the winter of 1935-36. It’s likely that the coal breaker Fiene saw and painted was in Eastern Pennsylvania, where anthracite coal is more commonly found. The hard, compact fuel burns with a bright blue flame.

“You see coal tipples all over this region but you don’t necessarily see coal breakers,” said Barbara L. Jones, chief curator at the Westmoreland.

Coal tipples and the soft bituminous coal they handle are more common in Western Pennsylvania, she said.

Jones said the shape behind the coal breaker could be a mountain. “It could also be a culm bank where they put all the refuse of the coal industry. It does look like there are trees growing on it.”

“Coal Breaker, Pennsylvania” was shown in Pittsburgh during a solo show of Fiene’s works called “The Industrial Scene” in 1937. Fiene’s drawings and paintings were presented by the Pittsburgh Commission for Industrial Expansion and shown at First National Bank, which once stood at 511 Wood St., Downtown.

“Pittsburgh fascinated me,” Fiene wrote in the 1937 exhibition catalogue.

“It was a symphony in grey, brown and black. The rising hills of the city wrapped in snow, a heavy ceiling of snow clouds gathering smoke from the belching chimneys, and the safron (sic) colored rivers winding their way through these populous hills; in this magic setting all objects became imbued with a new significance. I was conscious of a new visual experience.”

While Fiene was making his trip, Michael Gallagher, Harry Sternberg, Riva Helfond and other artists were chronicling the coal industry in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Jones said,

Fiene painted realistically, defining the coal breaker, trees and snow with clean brushwork, muted colours and hard-edged, simplified lines.

“You can see the dirt on the snow. It’s more factual. A lot of the artists cleaned them up and made them romantic with white fluffy snow and a steel mill blasting in the background,” Jones said.

At the top of the painting are grey clouds that signal an approaching winter storm.

In December 1935, Fiene arrived in Pittsburgh and sketched the Lucy blast furnace at the Carnegie Steel mill in Lawrenceville.

“Less than two years later, she was taken down,” Jones said. “We have that sketch.”

The Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland has a painting Fienes made from the Lucy sketch, dated 1935-1936.

Months before Fiene visited Pittsburgh, some shoppers were already familiar with his work. He was among more than 30 artists whose etchings, lithographs and woodcuts were exhibited at Kaufmann’s department store for five days in October 1935. Among the artists listed on a store flier were Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, Rockwell Kent, Reginald Marsh and John Steuart Curry. Kaufmann’s also sold Christmas cards with reproductions of the artwork for 5-25 cents each.

Maria Fiene, the artist’s daughter, lives in New Port Ritchey, Fla. She was 11 when her father died at age 70 in 1965 after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Her father’s sketch of a “Pennsylvania Winter” is among the Christmas cards she found recently at her home.

Ms. Fiene, who works at Pasco-Hernando State College as co-ordinator for veterans services, said she was especially delighted to find drawings by Rivera, a Mexican artist famous for his murals. The college now has a travelling exhibition of the artwork of Frida Kahlo, who married Rivera in 1929, divorced him in 1939 and remarried him in 1940.

The Rivera drawing that was made into a Christmas card in 1935 shows a mother slumbering with her three children. Its title is “Sleep.”