Sheeler painted Rolling Power as part of a series on industrial power commissioned by Fortune magazine. Rather than showing the entire engine or train, the painting instead depicts two drive wheels, a bogie wheel, and engine parts of a Hudson-type New York Central locomotive designed by Henry Dreyfuss. In 1939 it was the most efficient and powerful railroad engine available. Sheeler painted it in pristine condition in a palette of browns and grays, almost as a frieze in low relief. The only suggestion of movement is a puff of steam at the right, whose vapor trail points toward Sheeler’s signature on the rail below.
A noted photographer as well as a painter, Sheeler used photographs as aids in painting Rolling Power and other works in the Power series. The related photograph Wheels, also in the Museum’s collection, is basically the same composition and format as the painting, but the photograph on which Rolling Power was based no longer exists.
I thought that I remembered this painting from a textbook from my undergraduate days when I took my art history courses pass/fail and mostly just read the book and listened to the lectures. I was impressed by the combination of image and title. The work seems to convey, with photographic precision, the mechanical details of the running gear of a steam engine. I was surely attracted to the complexity of mechanical details, especially the wheels and their driving mechanisms, all precisely rendered, right down to the small “puff” of steam at the lower right of the composition. I had never bothered to notice where the painting resided. I came to teach at Smith in 1977, and was enthralled when I walked into the museum for the first time and saw the painting hanging on the wall. From the label I learned that it has been here for practically all of its life. Now shift to the present and see how memory is volatile. I just checked in all of my text books from those school days, and the painting is not in any of them. So I do not even remember where I first came upon it. Memory can be so interesting.
Image Information: Charles Sheeler. American, 1883–1965. Rolling Power . 1939. Oil on canvas. Purchased with the Drayton Hillyer Fund
Oil on canvas
Purchased with the Drayton Hillyer Fund
ID Number: SC 1940:18