Rivers, Railroads, Cities and Industry: Ault and Sheeler

Middle School, 6-8th Grade / Art & Social Studies
Author: The Newark Museum

Lesson Description

At the beginning of the twentieth century, rivers, canals, and railroads linked American harbors to the rich iron, coal, and agricultural resources of the West and Midwest. During the second Industrial Revolution, from 1900 to 1940, this network of transportation, especially the railroads, enabled the United States to become a powerful empire. Nowadays, trucks and airplanes also carry products across the nation and around the world. Students study two artworks for their impact on the landscape of the United States. They then examine how waterways impacted the industrial nation. 



At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

+        Explain how railroads and waterways stimulated the growth of cities and industry during the second Industrial Revolution, 1870–1940

+        Identify transportation routes and structures in their local region.

+        Create an artwork describing transportation and industry in their local region. 


Learning Standards

NAES – VisArts – 5-8, 2
NAES – VisArts – 5-8, 4
NAES – VisArts – 5-8, 6

Lesson Activies 

Activity: Look and Think Worksheet 
Before discussing George Ault’s From Brooklyn Heights, have students individually study a print or online image of the painting and write their answers on the worksheet below Look and Think. Use the worksheet questions and the students’ answers as a framework for a class discussion about the art. Encourage them to notice types of transportation that Ault included. 

Download full PDF Lesson above to access activity worksheets


Activity : Compare and Contrast
Have students compare Ault’s From the Brooklyn Bridge to Scheeler’s American Landscape. They should complete the Venn diagram provided in the PDF Full Lesson.  A student worksheet with images as well as a teacher answer key are available. 

Download full PDF Lesson above to access activity worksheets


Activity: Waterways Through Transportation
Students will learn how rivers and canals connect resources of the Midwest to factories and to cities.

+        Have students read the excerpt from America on the Move, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution at http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/exhibition/exhibition_6_1.html
They may read this online or as a reprint. Have them compare the New York Harbor boats pictured on this site to the ones in Ault’s painting.

+        On printouts of railroad maps from the New York State Department of Transportation, have students circle areas where railroads and rivers connect. What cities are at these points?

+        Discuss with students what is grown, mined, or manufactured in your local area and state. Explain how this is delivered or shipped to the rest of the world. Have students trace transportation routes for raw materials to local urban areas and ports on railroad and highway maps.

+        Directions to students:

o  On a map (computer printout) use a color marker to trace a shipping route for crops, manufactured objects, or natural materials from your area to a port. If you live near an ocean, print the shipping lanes to the rest of the world.

o  Identify or draw buildings or structures, such as large bridges, terminals, grain elevators, mines, refineries, cotton gins, factories, or warehouses, on this route.

o On a separate sheet of paper, write a description of how a product or resource is shipped from your local region to the rest of the world. Describe the material that is transported, what type of transportation it travels in or on, and to which port it goes.

o  Staple or LIGHTLY glue your map to your paper.



Extending the Lesson

  • Have students look at the three-dimensional image of a kerosene lamp from the Newark Museum’s teaching collection. Ask the students how this object fits into the scene of George Ault’s From Brooklyn Heights. Who could have used this object, and how would they use it?  Describe the job of the person holding the lamp. Where are they traveling to? What mode of transportation are they using?  What goods are they delivering?
  • Have students work in groups of four to study color prints of either American Landscape or From Brooklyn Heights. Students in each group will each be assigned a role: wealthy industrialist, Italian immigrant, middle-class factory owner, and Progressive reformer. With their assigned role in mind, students should examine the painting and interpret its meaning. In character, the students should discuss with other group members the things that stand out to them in the artwork and why.
  • Locate Brooklyn Heights on a map to see where Ault was when he painted this picture. Internet maps, such as those on Google, include today’s satellite views of this area. Currently, the City of New York is redeveloping and creating parkways along the East River in the area that George Ault depicted in his 1925 painting. View the plans in the City of New York’s Ttransforming the East River Waterfront at www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/erw/erw_7_gateway_projects.pdf.



George Copeland Ault (1891–1948)
From Brooklyn Heights, 1925
oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in.
Collection of the Newark Museum, 28.1802

George Copeland Ault, 1891–1948) was the son of a Cleveland, Ohio, printer who was also an amateur painter. When George was eight, his family moved to London. As a child, Ault visited European art museums with his father. He studied art in London before his family returned to the United States in 1911. They settled in New Jersey, near New York City. Ault began to experiment with and paint Cubist-influenced geometric cityscapes. Eventually, he moved to New York City, where he exhibited his work. George Ault had a troubled family life; three of his brothers committed suicide. After a divorce, he moved to Woodstock, New York, where he received government aid for his art during the Great DepressionGeorge Copeland Ault’s 1925 oil painting From Brooklyn Heights shows the industrial 1920s Brooklyn waterfront. Ault simplifies his subjects, reducing them to basic shapes. His city view shows a normally teeming city devoid of people. This contributes to a feeling of urban isolation and loneliness often associated with Ault and other artists of this time period, including Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper. 


Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
American Landscape, 1930
oil on canvas, 24 x 31 in.
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (166.1934)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York
National Endowment for the Humanities, Picturing America Collection


Additional Resources

Selected EDSITEment Lesson Plans


I Hear the Locomotives: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad
The Industrial Age in America: Robber Barons and Captains of Industry
The Industrial Age in America: Sweatshops, Steel Mills, and Factories
Was There an Industrial Revolution? New Workplace, New Technology, New Consumers
Carl Sandburg's "Chicago": Bringing a Great City Alive



Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication does not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Arts.