Men of Progress

In 1857, the inventor of a coal-burning stove, Jordan Mott, commissioned Christian Schussele to paint a group portrait of nineteen American scientists and inventors who "had altered the course of contemporary civilization." The group portrait did not mark an actual occasion but was designed to honor the achievements of American industry. The artist sketched study portraits of each of his subjects before putting them all into his final, formal composition. Men of Progress is a remarkable document of the growth of the American economy by the 1850s. Included among the celebrated inventors and manufacturers are: Cyrus McCormick; inventor and promoter of a mechanical reaper, Charles Goodyear; discoverer of vulcanization for rubber use, Samuel Colt; inventor of the revolving pistol; Samuel Morse; inventor of the electric telegraph, and Elias Howe; inventor of the sewing machine. Also among the figures pictured are the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry. Benjamin Franklin sits above all of these men, in a portrait, as the patron saint for science and invention.

Christian Schussele was born in France in 1824, and is thought to have studied academic painting and lithography in Paris.  He immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1850s and went on to become an outstanding teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he taught until his death in 1879. His work was widely circulated and recognized due to large prints made by John Sartain and other engravers. In addition to honoring these men of American industry, Schussele also created a portrait of the significant literary figures of the day, Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside.  The portrait, owned by the National Portrait Gallery, can be found here: Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside

  • Look closely at this group portrait. What do the figures have in common? What visual clues make you think so?
  • Why do you think these men are meeting?
  • Describe the various objects and blue prints. 
  • How does hairstyle and clothing help us date when this portrait was created?
  • Benjamin Franklin appears in a framed portrait on the wall in the background. Why do you think the artist included this as an object in the composition?
  • If we could paint a portrait of current inventors and scientists, who would you include in the portrait?

For more information about this portrait from our friends at the National Museum of American History, view the video:  Men of Progress, 1862.


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