Augustus Egg, British. 1816-1863, The Travelling Companion, 1862, Oil on canvas, Burmingham Museums & Art Gallery, presented by The Feeney Charitable Trust, 1956.

Paul Delvaux, Belgian, 1897-1994, The Iron Age, 1951, Oil on canvas, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Oostende.

The Quickening Culture of the Age of Steam in the Industrial World

Edouard Manet, French. 1832-1883, The Railway, 1873, Oil on canvas, Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W Havemeyer.

René Magritte, Belgian, 1898-1967, Time Transfixed, 1938, Oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection.

Pierre Fix-Masseau, French. 1905-1994, Exactitude, 1932, Color Lithograph, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Modernism Collection, gift of Norwest Bank Minnesota.


Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
4525 Oak Street
Kansas City
Bloch Building, Galleries, L13 and L14
Art in the Age of Steam: Europe,
America and the Railway, 1830-1960

Sept. 13, 2008-January 18, 2009

“We feel ourselves as powerful as the sorcerers of old! We put our magic horse to the carriage and space disappears; we fly like clouds in a storm!”

— Hans Christian Andersen, Railway Readings, 1847

No industrial development has had such a sudden and transforming effect as the steam railroad. Within a few years of trains’ first use ca. 1830, their speed increased to at least three times that of road coaches, and the volume of passenger and freight traffic far surpassed any other form of transport.

This exhibition shows how artists responded to the railroad, especially in Europe and the United States. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, artists concentrated on feats of railroad engineering, the railroad as a focus for human drama, as a setting to explore light and atmosphere and as a symbol of reflective states of mind. Not until after the First World War did artists begin to celebrate the railroad as a mechanical marvel.  The exhibition is organized — and the story told — in six sections.

The Formative Years in Europe presents the early development of the railroad, especially in Britain and France.The first railroad images to appear in Britain were prints, which enjoyed an extensive sale and helped make the new concept of railroad travel more familiar and acceptable to the public. J.C. Bourne's prints and drawings depict feats of engineering: the tunnels, bridges, embankments and cuttings necessary to keep the route level and thus make high speeds possible. In France, the photographer Edouard Baldus promoted the legitimacy of the new railroads by portraying them like timeless monuments, a modern equivalent of the roads and aqueducts of the Roman Empire.

Human Drama presents the railroad station and compartment as locations of potential narrative and drama. The railroad, used by all classes, was seen as a possible social leveler but also created anxiety about the classes mixing too freely. Artists such as Abraham Solomon in his various train compartment scenes, depict the vulnerability of middle-class women traveling unsupervised or the sadness of a young man’s departure for the colonies. Augustus Egg uses the railroad compartment to set off the slightly different personalities of two young ladies who may be twins, while Honoré Daumier incisively evokes the varying degrees of comfort and discomfort and differences of passenger behavior in first-, second- and third-class compartments.

Crossing Continents
shifts the focus of the exhibition to the United States. Artists portrayed the railroad as sometimes in harmony with the landscape and sometimes at loggerheads with the virgin beauty of nature. Albert Bierstadt’s large painting of the Donner Pass in the Rockies addresses the heroic feats of Western railroad expansion and the conquest of geographical obstacles. The painting by Henry Farny depicts the resistance and defeat of the Plains Indians in the face of Manifest Destiny. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 was well-recorded by photographers, whose records of scenes along the route encouraged tourism as well as settlement.

Impressionists and Post Impressionists features artists who were attracted by the railroad not only as a means of getting to their favorite painting sites, but also as an archetypal feature of modern life. In his paintings of the Saint-Lazare station in Paris, Claude Monet evokes the bustle of arrivals and departures and uses the railroad station as a place to try out new effects of light and atmosphere. In his view of the Europe Bridge (On the Pont de l’Europe) near this station, Gustave Caillebotte uses the iron trellis as a metaphor for the crushing effect of an industrial environment, while Edouard Manet in The Railway (The Gare Saint-Lazare) enlists the background tracks approaching the station to suggest the railroad as a symbol of liberation and escape. Monet and Camille Pissarro also examined the effects of the railroad on the countryside or suburbia.

States of Mind, which covers the late 19th and early 20th centuries, portrays the railroad less realistically in order to evoke feelings and ideas associated with the railroad and with railroad journeys. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's painting presents a harsh urban industrial environment carved up by railroad tracks. The melancholy and alienation induced by rail travel are depicted by the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico and in the more realistic works of Edward Hopper. Thomas Hart Benton's subject dreams of a nightmarish railroad accident. Paintings by Paul Delvaux eerily juxtapose the female nude and the train, while Henri Magritte, in his celebrated Time Transfixed, uses the locomotive as a symbol of passing time temporarily brought to a halt.

The Machine Age presents railways in both painting and photography as a new kind of industrial landscape, where pollution suggests prosperity as well as environmental threats. During the years between the First and the Second World Wars, artists gloried in the steam locomotive as a symbol of speed and power at the very moment when it was being challenged by road and air transport. The exhibition concludes with works that celebrate the end of the steam age in a spirit of valedictory nostalgia.

Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, French, 1901-1968, Nord Express, 1927, Color lithograph, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Modernism Collection, gift of Norwest Bank Minnesota.


Thomas Proudley Otter, American, 1832-1890, On the Road, 1860. Oil on canvas, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: Nelson Trust, 50-1.

Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, Gare d'Argenteuil, 1872, Oil on canvas, Unframed: 18-3/4 x 28 inches (47.63 x 71.12 cm), Musée de Luzarches, Conseil Général du Val d'Oise, Cergy-Pontoise, © Conseil Général du Val d'Oíse. Photo J.-Y. Lacote.