This is the text of a talk delivered at the Ashcan/Camden Town Group Comparative Symposium, sponsored by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, April 15, 2021.

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for including our class in this symposium — we are very excited to be here. I’m Holly, and my classmate Sydney and I will be presenting today on behalf of our seminar, Transatlantic Modernisms.

Today we will compare Robert Henri’s Coal Breaker from 1902 – a work in the collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art – and Spencer Gore’s Letchworth Station from 1912. We were drawn to this pair as they both explore modern landscapes where the emerging presence of industry is visible. Both works depict the aesthetic and environmental impact of industrialization on the rural environment, and do so through an engagement with the tradition of landscape painting.

Henri’s painting depicts Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields, where a coal breaker stands front and center amidst a dark, atmospheric landscape. Spencer Gore’s Letchworth Station shows the train terminal in the new garden city of Letchworth, set in the backdrop of a brightly colored and quintessentially British pastoral landscape.

We argue that these two representations of modernity are two sides of the same coin. Both represent a modern restructuring of the rural countryside. If Henri’s Coal Breaker shows us the harsh reality of resource extraction needed to fuel a modern city, then Gore’s Letchworth Station shows us the resulting product — the new country towns such as Letchworth which provided an escape from the city.

The presence of the railway in both of these paintings suggests that cities are not just locations; they are systems which connect urban, rural, and suburban spaces. In Coal Breaker, the small train in the middle ground focuses our attention on the resource extraction necessary to sustain urban life. The presence of the railway in Letchworth Station reminds us that this bucolic retreat is tethered to the metropolis by the constant traffic of people and goods back and forth. Though neither painting explicitly shows the city, they both allude to its dominance, representing the city as a central node connecting urban, rural, and suburban.

Henri painted the Coal Breaker in June of 1902 shortly after he returned from a trip to his in-laws’ home in the rural town of Black Walnut, Pennsylvania. The story goes that while he was headed back home to New York, his train had a one hour layover in the mining town of Wilkes Barre where he saw and sketched a coal breaker which later inspired this painting

Interestingly, the 1902 strike at Wilkes Barre, which was the largest coal strike in the US to date, had begun about a month before Henri traveled to Pennsylvania. The industry notoriously underpaid workers and provided little to no safety protections, so strikes were common. Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened and ended the strike, but only because he was fearful of a winter without heat for city residents. Given Henri’s proximity to the strike and its national implications, we argue that the painting is a contemporary commentary on the coal industry and the historical events of 1902.

Turning to the picture, we see the hulking mass of the coal breaker looming over the landscape. The contours of its form echo the hills behind it. Low in the foreground, a few small figures can be glimpsed. Henri’s decision to juxtapose the natural with the mechanical suggests that he is critical of industry’s impact on the environment. The work is painted wet on wet, making features of the composition harder to distinguish. The muddy, gray-brown color palette conveys apprehension and danger, while the crepuscular atmosphere emits a yellow glow. We see the environmental pollution of coal mining in the dark smog at the canvas’ edge. The viewer may be missing out a beautiful sunset, or sunrise, in the smoky sky behind the machine.

In this composition, Henri draws on the American landscape tradition of the Hudson River school. In paintings by Church, Cole and Bierstadt, the landscape is often framed through a sweeping view across an awe-inspiring vista. The idealization of the rural is implied within the landscape painting tradition.. Here, in contrast, we see a landscape scarred by the effects of industry but approached from a similar perspective.  We focus on the monumental structure of the landscape and how human figures engage with it. In painting Coal Breaker this way, Henri asks us to consider the tradition of landscape painting in contrast to the reality of the rural environment as a feeding tube for the city.

In Letchworth Station, Gore provides a different view of how the city and country are interconnected. In 1912, Gore left London to stay in Harold Gilman’s home in Letchworth, while there producing seventeen works of the new garden city. Started by the urban planner Ebenezer Howard, garden cities were small, self-sustained communities that aimed to marry to town and countryside. Howard forged socialist ideals and hoped to solve urban problems, namely overpopulation. However, the high cost of living resulted in an influx of wealthy middle class Londoners looking to escape the grime and congestion of London. And little attention was paid to the garden cities’ impact on existing rural communities, therefore the experience was principally defined through the eyes of city dwellers.

In Letchworth Station, Gore puts two visual traditions in dialogue. He looks to 19th century British landscapes while cultivating a modern style and image. Ysanne Holt claims that Gore’s pictures of Letchworth complicate the opposition between nature and progress, and we can see Gore’s work in bringing the two together. Here, we see a picturesque conception of the British landscape, highlighting nature and alluding to a time before urbanization. But in light of the changing rural and suburban atmospheres, Gore represents progress and modernity through his stylistic choices. Similar to the formal simplifications of Cézanne, Gore constructs the scene sculpturally, laying down distinct patches of color across the canvas. He uses the vocabulary of French modernist painting to push the traditional landscape into the modern world. While the garden city advertised ideal English gardens, the landscape does not remain untouched, and Gore highlights the increasingly porous boundaries between the modern city and its rural offshoots with a sign of industry, the railroad, literally driving through the landscape.

In contrast to Coal Breaker, the railway is central to the composition of Gore’s painting and recedes far into the horizon, establishing a depth of field and dominates the landscape. The railway–as well as the power lines, rooftops, and chimneys–all interrupt Gore’s panoramic vista. These geometric forms impose an orderly, urban vision onto the countryside’s rolling hills.

And this is in contrast to Gore’s other Letchworth scenes, which include quaint, private views of walking paths, yards, and gardens. The dominance of the railway therefore suggests the landscape opening itself up to residents and workers commuting into the garden city. As in the Coal Breaker, although we are brought to a rural location, our attention is directed to the structural impact of industry on the landscape. Therefore, our minds travel back to this city as do the residents of Letchworth.

This painting is a rare instance where Gore represents people in the garden city. Preliminary drawings for this scene show that the figures were a deliberate and later addition. However, the figures’ identities are obscured, as Gore reduces their faces to blobs of color and simplifies their bodies.

We as viewers wonder who these figures truly are, and examining the social history of Letchworth provides a clue: On the left, there appears to be railroad workers dressed in uniform. The majority of figures, however, may be the middle-class Letchworth residents, well-dressed and enjoying convenient access to the city.

Gore’s rendering of the garden city landscape and its residents shows the modern city as an active system, as there is a constant influx of goods and people in and around London, and between the seemingly autonomous garden city.

If on the surface, Gore’s landscape depicts a cleaner vision of modernity than the soot infused atmosphere of Coal Breaker, these small figures waiting for the train, remind us that the pastoral vision of Letchworth is upheld by its connection to the big city, its idyllic beauty is as defined by industry and labor as the Pennsylvania coal fields.


Both Gore and Henri were urbanites passing through these sites on their way to and from cities, riding the railway that intertwined city, suburb and countryside. As a class, we have returned to this theme of the city as a system time and time again in our study of modernity through the Ashcan-Camden Town lens. In other works by these artists, we see carts of slaughtered farm animals and loads of produce brought into the city from the countryside, ice from northern Maine being delivered in the hot streets of Boston, and urban tourists flooding the seaside on holidays – all reminding us that cities transform far more than their own urban streets – they reshape the world around them, drawing people and resources in and out of their gravitational pull.