In 1939, painter Charles Sheeler was commissioned by Fortune magazine to do a series of images on the theme of "Power." The nation's most important business magazine, which had begun publication in 1930, was handsomely produced, with articles by well-respected writers and work by notable artists. Sheeler had long been fascinated by the unusual beauty of American industry, his Precisionist vision engaged by the immense scale of the Machine Age. For Sheeler, the structures of modern industrial progress were the modern equivalents of the pyramids of ancient Egypt or the great Gothic cathedrals of medieval France.
In Rolling Power, the artist focuses on the running gear of a Hudson-powered locomotive, a subject that inspired both a painting and a photograph. Recorded with apparent meticulous detail, its formal strength derives also from the artist's strong sense of abstraction, as he deletes the wear that would have been evident, as well as the grease that kept the gears running smoothly. The locomotive, which hauled heavy New York Central passenger trains at speeds exceeding one hundred miles an hour, was a heroic symbol of modern American industry. Absent are railroad workers or the captains of industry who rode speedily and comfortably inside.
--Betsy Fahlman, Arizona State University