Stefan Hirsch’s paintings of New England’s industrialized communities, like Mill Town, connect him to the precisionist aesthetic of the 1920s, not only in his subject matter, but also in his elimination of figures and natural landscape elements, and his reliance on geometric schematization, hard edges, and harmonious tonal variations. Unlike his precisionist colleagues, however, Hirsch did not idealize his subjects. Rather, he depicted America’s factory towns with a haunting stillness, evocative of a modernity suspended between the rural past and the industrial present. Hirsch emphasized the melancholy of industrial America in Mill Town by juxtaposing the flat, decorative patterns of the river and buildings with an expressive sky and setting sun.
In 1926, Duncan Phillips exhibited Mill Town, having purchased the painting the previous year. In the exhibition pamphlet Phillips wrote: “Mill Town is as infallibly decorative as a Japanese print and yet oh how American! . . . The grim battlements of Industry are all beautiful in a strange harmony of subtly orchestrated tones.”