Treasures from the Vault: Louis Conrad Rosenberg

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

It’s Labor Day weekend, which marks not only the unofficial end of summer and your last chance to wear white but ushers in the back-to-school sales and discounts on everything from patio furniture to electronics. Before it converted into a celebration of sales, this federally recognized (since 1894) holiday honored and appreciated the American labor movement and its contributions to the development and achievements of the United States. First celebrated in Oregon in 1877, it is also in Oregon where Portland-born artist Louis Conrad Rosenberg, a draftsman and architectural illustrator, got his start. Today, we’re focusing on a portfolio of prints he made in Cleveland that include a section of the labor force: builders and construction workers.

An etching of the track grading for the train on Ontario Street. In black and gray, the background shows the buildings of downtown Cleveland while the foreground illustrates the workers standing on and placing the grading for the track.
Louis C. Rosenberg, American, 1890-1983. Ontario Street Track Grading. Etching, 1928. Museum Purchase, SC6.2020.4. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Commissioned by the Van Sweringen brothers to create etchings of the construction efforts of the Cleveland Union Terminal, this series of 22 drypoints (Rosenberg was paid $2,000 per plate!), completed between 1928 and 1930, showcase the sites, demolitions, and buildings involved in the Cleveland Railroad Terminal project. Rosenberg produced hundreds of etchings throughout the United States and Europe. The works made for the new railroad center in the business district of Cleveland, however, show not just the finished structure, but the labor and skilled work required to build it. Note the laborers standing on the grading in the above etching. How does including the workers make the scene more dynamic? Is it a landscape if there are people included in the composition?

This etching shows the demolition of a power plant. Works stand in the foreground moving planks and loading them onto a truck. The majority of the composition shows the foundation of where the building once stood, with only it's back wall still intact.
Louis C. Rosenberg, American, 1890-1983. Demolition of Power Plant. Etching, 1929. Museum Purchase, SC6.2020.5. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The above etching shows the demolition of a power plant to, more than likely, make space for the railroad tracks or a newer building. Notice the trucks and people in the foreground. What are they doing? Why might the commissioners want works showing what buildings were there before the new ones were built?

FWMoA recently acquired a number of these plates, though not the entire portfolio. Etching quickly became the medium in which Rosenberg expressed his artistic interest in architecture and transitioned him from draftsman to fine artist.

An etching of the old food market illustrates the derelict building, juxtaposed by taller buildings of the Cleveland cityscape in the back. In the right corner, you can see a car filled with bundles and people walking down the streets.
Louis C. Rosenberg, American, 1890-1983. Old Food Market. Etching, 1928. Museum Purchase, SC6.2020.2. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Born in 1890, Louis C. Rosenberg is now considered among America’s greatest traditional graphic artists and architectural illustrators, alongside his fellow M.I.T graduates and WWI veterans John Taylor Arms and Samuel Chamberlain. Rosenberg began studying architecture in 1906, at age 16, under New Zealand-born architect T. Chapell Brown. His mother paid Brown $50/month for two years, and he was later hired as a staff draftsman. A diehard note-taker, he filled dozens of copy books with sketches and studies of markets, monuments, and architectural scenes during his traveling fellowship following WWI, from Great Britain and western and eastern Europe to North Africa. Though he planned to continue his work as a draftsman, chance meetings during his travels led him toward etching and the fine art world. For the rest of his life, he would bounce between the careers of teacher, architect, and artist.

The Rome Series, etchings from the fall of 1921 and spring of 1922, initiated his career as a fine artist. Robert Fulton Logan instructed Rosenberg in the printmaking technique of etching, and he made 8 plates with him. He attended the School of Engraving at The Royal College of Art in London, studying under master printmaker Malcom Osborne. Noted for his picturesque work that is well-balanced, though not strictly symmetrical, Rosenberg’s ability to animate the buildings and construction sites with life and movement is his signature. His inclusion of people in the foreground going about their lives or working on the site incorporates the building into its setting, illuminating how it functions for those who live around it. This approach fosters movement, juxtaposed against other works that venerate seemingly solemn, static structures. Particularly in the Cleveland portfolio, labor is shown underway and in stages. Rosenberg produced multiple angles, further showcasing the work that went into the aesthetically pleasing finished buildings. The process is journalistic, documenting the phases of construction and the workers’ progress from various viewpoints. How does each scene help place the viewer in the space?

Though his travel sketches were completed in person, his etchings for the Van Sweringen brothers were done using photographs and architectural drawings of the sites. Throughout the 1930s Rosenberg focused on his etchings and drypoint, but with the 1940s came the decline of etching as a popular medium, and when his agent, H.C. Dickens, died, Rosenberg returned to architectural draftsmanship. 171 etchings and drypoint estate prints, along with scores of architectural illustrations and renderings in various media, are archived in the Special Collections Division at the University of Oregon.

Celebrate Labor Day this year by creating a work that includes laborers, keeping in mind that the buildings we live and work in don’t just appear on their own or by magic. It takes a diverse group of workers to build a building! Follow Rosenberg’s method and create a work en plein air or take photographs and make your work at home.

Want to see more prints and drawings from the FWMoA collection? Contact Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings, or stop in when the Print & Drawing Study Center is open Tuesday-Friday 11am-3pm!

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