Elsie Driggs is best known as a precisionist painter who, in the 1920s, responded to the clean, abstract beauty of the machine age in geometrically simplified compositions. Though her fame today lies in her paintings from the industrial era, she actually concluded that chapter of her artistic career by her early thirties. Driggs also did floral & figurative paintings in watercolors, pastels, & oils.
Elsie Driggs was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1898, & moved to New Rochelle, New York with her family in 1906. Both of her parents were interested in the arts; her mother, Roberta, attended many lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, & her father, Louis, became an art collector. She took art classes at New Rochelle Public High School & painted during the summer in Dover Plains, New York.
She attended the Art Students League of New York from 1918 to 1922 under instruction from urban realists’ John Sloan, Robert Henri, & George Luks. Sloan helped ignite Drigg’s interest in Cezanne & the old masters, which would prove to be significant in her career. During this time, Driggs frequented the Daniel Gallery where she was exposed to many American modernist paintings. It would later become the center for Precisionist painters like Driggs. In 1922, she traveled to Rome & studied with modernist Maurice Sterne. She also became acquainted with Leo Stein, who introduced her to the work of Piero della Francesca & the Italian Futurist movement.
Upon her return to the States, Driggs served as an assistant in the lecture department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she further studied the art of the masters. In the twenties, Driggs became one of the few female members of the Precisionist movement, also known as New Classicists or Immaculates, a group that painted the modern landscape of factories, bridges, & skyscrapers with geometric precision & championed the machine age finding beauty in its progress. In 1930, she was included in the “35 under 35” opening exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, garnering her recognition as a successful painter.
She is most well known for paintings such as “Pittsburgh”(1928) & “Queensborough Bridge” (1927) depicting industrial forms engulfed in smoke & haze. She found inspiration for “Pittsburgh” in her memories of the steel mill where her father, an engineer, had worked when she was a child. The painting prompted a trip to the Jones & Laughlin steel mills, of which she said: "The particles of dust in the air seemed to catch & reflect the light to make a backdrop of luminous pale gray behind the shapes of simple smoke stack & cone. To me it was Greek." Upon visiting the factory before starting the painting, she was obstructed from entering because she was a woman & feared to be a labor agitator. She wrote, “But walking up toward my boarding house one night, I found my view. The forms were so close. And I stared at it & told myself, ‘This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is."
After marrying Maryland-born painter Lee Gatch (1902-1968), whose work she admired, Driggs moved to Lambertville, New Jersey in 1935. She & Gatch collaborated on commissioned mural projects for the Works Progress Administration, the Treasury Relief Art Project, & the Harlem River Housing Project. When working for the WPA in 1939, Driggs executed “La Salle’s Quest for the Mississippi” at the Rayville post office in Louisiana. Meant to be easily accessible to the public, the mural is representational & contains more narrative elements than most of her work.
Over the course of her 30-year marriage to abstract artist Lee Gatch, Driggs found it necessary to work from a makeshift kitchen studio, as she supported her husband through his long periods of alcohol addiction. She experimented with watercolor & collage techniques from her kitchen table. "I told myself Paul Klee worked in a closet. You can always do it," Driggs gave birth to her daughter, Merriman, in 1938. She became a teacher in 1945. In the 1960’s, she returned to painting using mixed media & figurative subject matter. After Lee Gatch died in 1968, Driggs and her daughter moved to New York City, where she continued to work until her death in 1992.