Full steam ahead — how artists embraced the age of the train
The locomotive roared through European art for more than a century, inspiring English Romantics, French Impressionists, Italian Futurists and Belgian Surrealists. Harry Pearson tracks its journey
In the autumn of 1825, a wheezing, panting, cast-iron contraption designed by George and Robert Stephenson chugged out of the County Durham town of Shildon in the north of England. Named Locomotion No 1, the steam engine was hauling 20 coal wagons and an experimental passenger coach containing close to 600 people.
A little over two hours later, the world’s first passenger train pulled in to its destination, Darlington. It was a journey of 8½ miles, covered — if you allow for pauses to clear the line and unblock an engine valve — at an average speed of eight miles per hour. Few of those who made that rattling, sooty trip could have imagined that what they had just experienced would not only dramatically transform the world, but also alter for ever the way it was perceived.
At first, artists were appalled by this latest product of the industrial revolution. Nature alone was beautiful. The railway appeared a mobile version of the dark satanic mills that defaced William Blake’s pastoral English Jerusalem: a dirty hooligan beast smashing rural harmony, a roaring symbol of ignorance and insensitivity. William Wordsworth was disgusted, his friend John Ruskin horrified.
This perspective did not last. Soon there would be a new generation of painters born and raised in the Steam Age who would, as Émile Zola observed, ‘find poetry in train stations the way their fathers found poetry in forests and rivers’.
There are hints of both attitudes in J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, first exhibited in 1844. Here, a Gooch Firefly locomotive thrashes across Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead. Boatmen and ploughmen are barely visible through the smoke, and what appears to be a hare attempts to race with the machine but is outpaced. Already, it seems, man has surrendered hegemony of the world to his own creations.
Yet Turner’s locomotive also seems less a defacer of the landscape than an integral part of it, merging with a cloudy, wet England; steam a natural source of energy in a country so proverbially damp and foggy.
Later, we find a similar ambivalence in Darío de Regoyos y Valdés’s Good Friday in Castille (1904), above, in which a train clatters over a viaduct, oblivious to the scene below: bowed, black-clad penitents processing silently to Mass. The steam engine might be speeding headlong into the inferno, or may equally be taking its passengers towards enlightenment.
It didn’t take British Victorians long to shake off any revulsion towards the steam train, and soon it was firmly locked in a warm and bosomy embrace. William Powell Frith’s The Railway Station (1863), below, is a Dickensian novella of a canvas, brimming with sentiment and picaresque comedy. What had once been a diabolical expedition was now a jolly family picnic. The station had become a place of fond farewells and joyful reunions, of anticipation as much as dread, a place of romantic possibilities and brief encounters.
Perhaps this almost inbuilt nostalgia was peculiar to British steam trains. In Camille Pissarro’s The Train, Bedford Park (1897), the suburban English scene is even jauntier than that of Frith. The puffing little engine is flanked by neatly trimmed hedges, homely allotment sheds and immaculate white signal posts. There’s a hint here of what is to come — the steam locomotive transformed from malevolent dragon, via symbol of thrusting modernism, to benign and cheerful workhorse.
To a nation that would come to see the Age of Steam as something as warmly cosy as tea and buttered crumpets by a glowing hearth, Pissarro’s Bedford Park train might be the great-grandfather of Thomas the Tank Engine.
In the USA during the same period, artists such as Andrew Melrose and Theodore Kaufmann left little doubt that the locomotive was something altogether more serious: the great advancer of Western civilisation, heroically facing untold perils.
Despite its self-evident scientific superiority, in canvases such as Melrose’s Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way — Near Council Bluffs, Iowa (1867), the steam engine seems oddly vulnerable, dwarfed by the wilderness and menaced by its inhabitants — a self-sufficient John Wayne alone on the prairie, surrounded by whooping Cheyenne warriors.
‘It’s a fascinating sight, a regular dream world’ — Claude Monet on Gare Saint-Lazare
France was slow in recognising the importance of railways, but it was here that the Age of Steam would have the greatest artistic influence. The first French passenger service had opened in 1835, but it wasn’t until 1842 that the construction of the sort of national network that had already been built in Britain and Belgium got under way.
Once started, progress was rapid, and by the end of 1860, lines connected all of France’s major cities and towns. As the French railways grew, so too did the Impressionists. Pissarro was born in 1830, Édouard Manet in 1832, Alfred Sisley and Paul Cézanne — classmate and pal of Zola — in 1839, Claude Monet in 1840.
The Gare Saint-Lazare is, after the Gare du Nord, the busiest of Parisian stations. It is here that trains arrive and depart for Normandy. The station was expanded in 1851 under the auspices of the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest, which operated the rail network. By 1854, the elegant hall, designed by Juste Lisch, led through to 14 platforms. From them, a traveller could catch direct trains to Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre and Caen, and there change onto branch lines to Dunkirk, Deauville and Brittany.
Manet lived in Rue de Saint-Petersbourg, a few streets away from the Gare Saint-Lazare. He would paint The Railway (1873), above, in the backyard of a friend’s house in nearby Rue de Rome. Gustave Caillebotte, whose Pont de l’Europe (1876) depicts a bridge over the Saint-Lazare rail yards, resided a couple of hundred metres from the station.
In 1877, Claude Monet rented a studio near the Gare Saint-Lazare. He was mesmerised by what he saw in the station, and quickly resolved on action: ‘I’ll show it just as the trains are starting, with smoke from the engines so thick you can hardly see a thing. It’s a fascinating sight, a regular dream world.’
Over the next few years, he would complete 12 paintings featuring the station, including Arrival of the Normandy Train (1877), discovering a lyricism in this stark, grimy, cast-iron world that matched anything he later found in the garden at Giverny. Beauty was not in the object itself, but in our perception of it.
Zola — who loved trains so much he had his house built next to a track so he could watch them from the garden, marking the radical author of J’Accuse! as an unlikely pioneer of trainspotting — was hugely impressed by Monet’s atmospheric work.
‘One can hear the roaring of the trains, which are swallowed up in overflowing smoke, rolling under vast hangars,’ he wrote. The novelist would set La Bête Humaine in and around the Gare Saint-Lazare, Monet’s evocative images decorating the cover of many later editions.
Not all the Impressionists took Monet’s full-frontal approach to locomotives, it should be noted. Although they may have viewed rail travel as a paradigm of the modernity they adored, still many shied away from actually portraying the engine itself. Like some vulgar body part, it was often merely hinted at through wafts of steam or perhaps a smokestack, peeping shyly from behind foliage. Paul Cézanne was even more discreet: tracks, stations and bridges appear in works such as Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-85), below, but an actual train is rarely visible.
Cézanne travelled by rail for the first time in 1861. The mule-like Locomotion No 1 had barely made speeds of 15mph. By the time Cézanne boarded the train from Paris Midi to Aix-en-Provence, locomotives were thundering along at a mile a minute. Older generations had been so dizzied by the sights from the windows of a speeding train, they had stared rigidly ahead for fear of nausea.
Then, as now, the young adapted to the new reality with more facility. For Cézanne, these fleeting views of the countryside, the foreground blurred, the backdrop apparently still and clear, were a revelation. It was a view of the world in which multiple elements surrendered to outline, as they would in his landscapes. As Jules Claretie, the writer and champion of Impressionism, commented of the rolling panorama, ‘Don’t ask it for details, but for the living whole.’
Though the settings, moonlight and even the women rarely change, Delvaux was promiscuous when it came to locomotives. Steam, diesel and electric, he painted them all
Wassily Kandinsky drew on Cézanne’s rail-inspired deconstruction of form and composition. For several years, the Russian Expressionist settled in Murnau, a stop on the Munich-to-Garmisch-Partenkirchen railway, one of the oldest lines in Germany. In Murnau View with Railway and Castle (1909), the locomotive casts a fuzzy shadow across the glowing fields as it flashes past telegraph poles, the steam from its funnel rising to merge with the clouds, as much a part of the landscape as the trees.
If the velocity of the steam engine influenced one group of artists, a very different aspect of rail travel had a profound effect on another. In Augustus Egg’s The Travelling Companions (1862), pictured at the top of this story, two young women frame a window that opens onto a Mediterranean scene. Egg’s work focuses not on the dramatic pace of rail travel, but instead on the somnolent, mesmerised state induced by the rhythmic rocking of the train and the dreamlike feeling of falling asleep in one place and waking in another.
Those same themes were explored, more openly and graphically, over a lifetime by the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux in works such as Les Phases de la Lune III (1942) and Le Voyage Légendaire (1974). Though the urban settings, moonlight and even the women — clothed and naked — rarely change (the latter were all versions of the artist’s wife), Delvaux was promiscuous when it came to locomotives. Steam, diesel and electric, he painted them all.
René Magritte was mockingly dismissive of his fellow countryman’s work, and certainly it lacks Magritte’s breadth of vision. However, Magritte’s 1938 painting Time Transfixed d raws on the same blatantly Freudian symbolism, a miniature locomotive jutting proudly from a fireplace, giving the otherwise domestic hearth the look of Priapus stalking Lotis.
A great influence on both Delvaux and Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico was the son of a railway engineer. In his work, the train — often far away in the background — brings neither excitement nor anticipation, but rather a sense of isolation and melancholy, steaming away to leave the viewer in an eerily unpopulated world of sunlight and shadow. Escape runs to a timetable, and we have missed the last departure of the day, the week, and possibly the century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their fixation with speed, power and masculinity, the Futurists saw the steam locomotive as a symbol of virility, initially at least. Gino Severini, one of the signatories of the 1910 Futurist manifesto, worked in a Paris studio that overlooked the Gare de Denfert-Rochereau. By now, the steam-hauled train was not only taking lovers to assignations and families on seaside holidays, it was also the principal means of carrying soldiers to the front line.
Futurism was supposed to celebrate war and violence, but the horrific reality of mechanised conflict seems to have softened the attitude of both Severini and his fellow signatory Umberto Boccioni. Both Severini’s Red Cross Train Passing a Village, (1915), above, and Boccioni’s triptych States of Mind (1911) capture the fracturing chaos of movement.
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In States of Mind, steam rolls towards us like a tsunami, and the charging locomotive appears likely to crush everything in its path. The steam engine may have been the embodiment of potency, but Boccioni also seems to recognise that the expression of such masculine virtues might conclude not only in glory, but also in loneliness and despair.
By the time Magritte painted Time Transfixed, diesel and electric locomotives had begun to replace steam engines. The last mainline steam train in Britain pulled into Liverpool Lime Street station in August 1968. Six years later, they were gone from France. The steam engine had already been abandoned as a subject by contemporary artists, replaced by the automobile, the jet and the spacecraft. And although Paul Delvaux continued to dream of it, for most of his fellow painters the Age of Steam had long since evaporated.