“Technology knows no international boundaries . . . great engineers create for the progress of all mankind.” (Lili Réthi, Radio Salzburg Broadcast, 1955, Lili Réthi Papers)
Lilly (Lili) Maria Réthi (1894-1969) was born in Vienna, Austria. Her parents were Leopold Réthi (1857-1924), a prominent doctor of laryngology and Marie (neé Mauther, 1863-1955). Réthi had one sister, Elizabeth “Elsie” (1889-1970). She attended the Viennese Kunstschule für Frauen und Mädchen (Vienna School of Art for Women and Girls, established 1897), from 1917-1924. The school existed until 1945, but it closed to Jewish women artists in 1938, when the school was subordinated to the municipality of Vienna and used to inculcate Nazi ideology (Ben-Eli, 1999).
Her uncle, Gustav Schütz, an artist, encouraged and influenced her. In art school, Réthi was taught by painter Otto Friedrich (1862-1937). Réthi learned to sketch the human form at the Vienna Anatomical Institute—training, no doubt, that her physician father encouraged. This training, which sharpened her sense of form and function, helped her later when drawing complicated machinery and illustrating Victor Hecht’s book, Leitfaden der Physikalisch-Therapeutischen, (Guide to Physical Therapy, 1916).
Réthi became fascinated with construction at a young age. “When I was a little girl in Vienna,” she later noted, “I used to take walks and watch men building houses. I was fascinated by the men working as well as the excitement of watching the building grow.” (Constructor, page 25) Her interest would develop into a full-time career and she would become one of the best-known illustrators of engineering, construction, and industrial sites.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Réthi was loosely associated with the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the Deutscher Werkbund, and Wiener Frauenkunst (WFK) circles in Austria. The WFK was an Austrian association of female artists and craftswomen that sought to create opportunities for the exhibition and sale of artwork for its members. During the 1920s, Réthi exhibited at the VBKÖ (Austrian Association of Women Artists) and Vienna Künstlerhaus. Many of the WFK artist-craftswomen, including Réthi, were Jewish and in the years leading up to and during World War II, were forbidden to work, forced to emigrate, or deported (Brandow-Faller). Réthi would leave Europe too, joining the exodus of creative talent seeking safety.
During the interwar years (1918-1939), Réthi interrupted her academic studies to work across Europe, illustrating sites in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The bulk of her work captured coal mines, coal yards, factories, chemical plants, blast furnaces, iron foundries, shipyards, steel production, other industrial and commercial buildings, aircraft, and bridges. In order to capture her subject, Réthi worked in sometimes perilous situations, on scaffolding, near heavy machinery, and once, under a mail truck to capture the activity of the London post. She often encountered the “discomforts inherent to the world of industry and construction, because she insisted on working from life. To make a series of drawings of Belgian coal miners, she once spent a week underground disguised as a boy” (Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 397, National Museum of American History. Division of Engineering and Industry, Records, circa 1948-1988. Box 3).
In 1929, Réthi moved to Berlin where she recorded engineering projects and was an illustrator for the magazine, Der Bücherkreis (Book Circle). She illustrated many of the Dortmunder Union activities during this period. The Union, a vertically integrated mining group (mining and iron and steel production), was founded in 1872 and was located in the Ruhr area of Germany. This work for the Union resulted in an exhibition in Berlin at the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (1931) as well as Wien-Berlin: Das Gesicht Zwei Städte (Vienna and Berlin: The Face of Two Cities, 1932); at the World Power Conference in Stockholm (1933); and the Technical Museum of Vienna (1934).
While in the Ruhr, Rethi documented workers, elevating their significance as subjects in their own right. She recorded the working conditions and harsh, dangerous physical labor. Her published work, Germinal (1924), highlighted, through seven lithographs, the terrible conditions in French mines.
Her work with the Union provided exposure and elevated her growing artistic status, especially with the Third Reich. With war imminent in Europe, the erosion of her personal rights as a Jewish woman, and a commission invitation from Hermann Göring to create propaganda images for the Nazi regime, she left for England, never to return to her homeland in Austria.
Her portfolio of work is immense, and while she focused on engineering, industrial and construction sites, trade publications, industry magazines, and newspapers, she branched into other areas. She illustrated the German version of Upton Sinclair´s Letters to Judd, An American Workingman (Briefe an einen Arbeiter, Leipzig-Wien, 1932) and was widely published in Austrian, Danish, and German newspapers such as Aften-Avisen, Bergland Wien, Børsen, Der Welt Spiegel, Beitbilder, and VDI Nachrichten. Later projects included books, primarily for children, commissions to sketch churches, portraits of individuals, illustrated book plates, pamphlets, and Christmas cards. Catholic organizations such as St. John the Divine and the Capuchin Friars in New York, also sought her services to sketch church interiors and illustrate brochures. And, in 1950, Réthi sketched the interior renovation (1948-1952) of the White House during the Truman Administration.
The Illustrated London News hired Réthi in 1937 to sketch the coronation of King George. While in England, she also created sketches for a booklet issued by the London, North Eastern Railway (L.N.E.R.); posters for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (L.M.S.) and the General Post Office (GPO) Post Office Motor Transport Depot (1937); the Post Office Underground Mail Train (1935); and LMS Crewe Works, Building Coronation Class Engine (1937). The Illustrated London News sent her to the 1939 New York World’s Fair where her introduction to and love of New York City would flourish.
Réthi arrived in the United States on March 23, 1939, and became a citizen in 1944. She told the New York Times on May 5, 1964, “I arrived on the Queen Mary one morning at 5 o’clock and saw the New York skyline, orange and pink and the light blue shadows of skyscrapers, and it was as I always had dreamed it would be. At 10 o’clock that morning I applied for citizenship.” Réthi was later joined in the United States by her sister, Elizabeth “Elsie” Geiringer, and brother-in-law, Otto Geiringer, who arrived in November 1939, and her mother, Marie Réthi, who arrived in December 1939. They all became naturalized citizens.
In the United States, Réthi continued illustrating engineering and construction activities, many of which were major postwar projects. Construction activities in the United States rose to levels not matched even by the 1920s construction boom. The nation’s infrastructure, population growth, mobility, and personal and business incomes all contributed to the increase in building projects (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1953). Réthi was attracted to the great industrial scene of 1940s America, and New York City provided a fertile location for most of her projects. The first public showing of her work in the United States was at the Architectural League of New York (1940) and her American Industry at War exhibition was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1943).
She documented some of the most significant projects in North America, such as the New York City Pavilion at the World’s Fair (1964), the United Nations Building (1949), the Pan Am Building (1962), Pennsylvania Station (1965), and the World Trade Center (1967-1968). In a January 3, 1968, letter to the Associated American Artists, Réthi wrote of her illustrations of the World Trade Center, saying, “This is an attempt to show two of the three elements of the New York World Trade Center construction. The human element and the fragile 19th century Wall Street architecture which will make the unique background for the giant steel construction of the world’s two highest buildings” (Associated American Artists records, Box 15).
One of the triumphs of New York City infrastructure was the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connected Staten Island and Brooklyn. The bridge covered a mile-wide channel at the entrance of New York Harbor and allowed drivers to avoid congested Manhattan traffic. Réthi documented the bridge from start to finish and was able to capture every perspective of the bridge during all seasons of its four-year construction (1959-1964). In April 1962, while sketching the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Réthi told the Staten Island Advance, “I’m really in love with anything under construction—whether it’s a giant bridge, a tunnel, an airport, or an office building.” Réthi worked with Gay Talese to illustrate his book, The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964). Her illustrations for the book would later form an exhibition held in 1965 at the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), titled The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: An Artist’s Record of Its Construction, 1960-1964.
For five years, from 1962-1967, Réthi chronicled the Manic-5 (now known as the Daniel Johnson Dam), a multiple-arch buttress dam on the Manicouagan River in Quebec, Canada. This work resulted in the book, Manic-5: The Building of the Daniel Johnson Dam, published by Doubleday and Company in 1971, two years after her death. Réthi completed all of her drawings on site and never added to them after returning home. She said, “That would be an artificial touch, that would spoil the real drama of construction” (Constructor, page 28). Réthi considered the Verrazano and Manic-5 illustrations to be her best work.
Réthi worked with several book publishers, especially, McGraw-Hill and Harcourt Brace, illustrating over 40 books, many for children. Her work appeared on the covers of many trade publications and magazines such as Pencil Points Service, Factory, Product Engineering, and the Journal of the American Society of Automotive Engineers. She accepted commissions from Surveyer, Nenniger & Chênevert (an engineering and construction firm that used her images as company Christmas cards), Sperry Gyroscope Company, U.S. Tobacco Company, Turner Construction, Walsh Construction, the Atlas Steel Plant, Bliss Manufacturing, the George A. Fuller Company, Standard Chemicals, and the United States Pipe and Foundry Company, to name just a few.
Lili Réthi was one of a few, perhaps the only female artist who devoted her career to portraying engineering works. By chronicling works under construction, she revealed all of the hidden components organically to the viewer.
To learn more about Lili Réthi and her contributions to documenting the built environment, visit the Archives Center and the Lili Réthi Papers which are “under construction,” with a detailed finding aid scheduled to be completed in 2023.
German translations by Christine Windheuser, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
- Associated American Artists Records, circa 1934-1983, Box 15. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- Ben-Eli, Birgit. "Austria: Jewish Women Artists." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, December 31, 1999, Jewish Women's Archive. Accessed November 4, 2022. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/austria-jewish-women-artists.
- Brandow-Faller, Megan. Interwar Vienna’s ‘Female Secession’: From Vienna to New York and Los Angeles Part II. Botstiber Institute for Austrian American Studies. Accessed November 4, 2022. https://botstiberbiaas.org/vienna-to-new-york/.
- Davis, James. “And the Artist Who Sketched Them,” Constructor, December 1967. Dixon, Christine. Secession: Modern Art and Design in Austria and Germany, 1890s-1920s (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2000): 7-11.
- Engineering Progress, “Railway Construction and the Industry,” September 1924: XLIX.
- Fellner, Sabine, and Stella Rollig. Stadt der Frauen: Künstlerinnen in Wien, 1900-1938 (City of Women: Female Artists in Vienna, 1900-1938). Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2019.
- Johnson. Julie M. The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2012.
- Lili Réthi Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
- Makela, Maria. The Munich Secession: Art and Artists in Turn-of-the-Century Munich. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1990: 58-62.
- Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 397, Box 3, National Museum of American History. Division of Engineering and Industry Records, circa 1948-1988.
- Steinweis, Alan E. Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
- United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Construction During Five Decades, Historical Statistics, 1907-1952. Bulletin No. 1146. 1953.