Oil in Art
Art is an important part of petroleum history. Many kinds of media help preserve the heritage of an industry that shaped and defined modern civilization. This Oil in Art page is just the tip of an extensive history that deserves wider recognition. Artists have been important recorders and interpreters of petroleum’s influence in the United States and the world.
For students and researchers, the American Oil & Gas Historical Society resources page includes links for photography (including universities and the Library of Congress), petroleum history videos, and a small AOGHS selection of oilfield artists and books and artists. Below are a few (for now) art-related AOGHS articles.
The Depression era comic strip caveman Alley Oop began in the imagination of a cartoonist who drew Permian Basin oilfield maps. The West Texas oil town of Iraan today proclaims itself as Victor Hamlin’s inspiration. His idea for the comic strip, which in the 1930s ran in 800 newspapers, was inspired by working in the company town’s Yates oilfield, where he developed a life-long interest in geology and paleontology.
Pennsylvania artist Robert Foster won the competition for a centennial oil stamp commemorating the birth of America’s petroleum industry. The stamp was issued on August 27, 1959, by U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, who proclaimed, “The American people have great reason to be indebted to this industry.” With 120 million stamps to follow the first day of issue, the stamp served “as a reminder of what can be achieved by the combination of free enterprise and the vision and courage and effort of dedicated men.”
Early Pennsylvania oilfield fires and an 1861 tragedy would lead to new technologies, a monument, and work of art. When the fatal fire at Rouseville occurred, popular Philadelphia artist James Hamilton painted the scene. The work differs greatly from his mid-19th Century maritime paintings that today hang in galleries around the world. In 2017, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., acquired Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania, ca. 1861. Hamilton has been compared to his celebrated counterpart in England, J. M. W. Turner.
Since 1955, a small, bronze Joe Roughneck bust is presented once a year as the petroleum industry’s Chief Roughneck Award, honoring someone “whose character represents the highest ideals of the industry.” Originally created by noted artist Torg Thompson – and presented to each Chief Roughneck recipient, Joe Roughneck began life in Lone Star Steel Company print advertising. The character became popular and was soon adopted by the industry at large, prompting Lone Star Steel to declare, “Joe doesn’t belong to us anymore. He’s as universal as a rotary rig.”
A winged neon reminder of the its oil heritage once soared above Dallas on the Magnolia Petroleum building. Today, the carefully refurbished red-winged oil patch icon continues to be a city attraction perched on a 22-foot derrick in front of the Omni Dallas Hotel. Mobil Oil Company’s trademark has been a feature of Dallas since first welcoming attendees to a 1934 petroleum convention. It remains among the most well recognizable corporate symbols in American history. .
Alexandre Hogue was part of the New Deal Federal Arts Program; he and other artists were commissioned to paint American history on the walls of public buildings during the Great Depression. He produced murals in Dallas, Houston – and a post office in Graham. His “Oil Fields of Graham” was restored and displayed at the Old Post Office Museum & Art Center. which opened in 1993. One his 1937 paintings depicts a Pecos oilfield with storage tanks in the foreground and the quarters for workers in the background. Hogue’s popular “Dust Bowl” collection was featured in Life magazine.
Traveling from Pennsylvania to Texas at the turn of the century, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler created town “aero views” or “bird’s eye views” – panoramic maps of many of America’s earliest petroleum communities. More than 400 Thaddeus Fowler panoramas have been identified. There are 324 in the Library of Congress, including petroleum towns like Oil City, Pennsylvania; Wichita Falls, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and many others.
Soon after the 1859 beginning of the U.S. petroleum industry in northwestern Pennsylvania, a young immigrant from England made his living as a photographer among the wooden derricks and engine houses. John A. Mather quickly became the oil and natural gas industry’s premier photographer, amassing thousands of glass plate negatives. Known as the “Oil Creek Artist,” Mather’s rolling darkroom and floating studio documented oilfields and early boom towns. What Matthew Brady and James Gardner documented on Civil War battlefields, Mather did in the oil region.
Thirty years before the Grinch stole Christmas in 1957, Theodore Seuss Geisel’s critters could be seen in Standard Oil of New Jersey advertising campaigns. During the Great Depression, the future Dr. Seuss promoted Essolube and other products. His “Seuss Navy” Essomarine booth at the 1936 National Motorboat Show was phenomenally successful. Seuss later said his experience at Standard, “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”
In June 1967, an entire wing of exhibits – the “Hall of Petroleum” – opened at the Smithsonian Institution’s American history museum on the national mall in Washington, D.C. Welcoming visitors was a “Panorama of Petroleum,” a 56-foot mural by Delbert Jackson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Exhibits included cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks and other oilfield exhibits. For museum visitors, the mural served as a guide to the equipment contents of the museum’s petroleum exhibits.
In early 1993, Bob “Daddy-O” Wade created a 63-foot tall saxophone sculpture at Billy Blues Bar & Grill on Houston’s west side. His artwork included two 48-inch steel sections of petroleum pipeline to create what some call the largest (non-playable) saxophone in the world.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a donation today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.