JMW Turner wasn’t by any means the first painter to inspire awe with views of new technologies like steam power. In that, he was following paintings of the industrial revolution by the likes of Joseph Wright of Derby, and Philip James de Loutherbourg.
De Loutherbourg’s vision of Coalbrookdale by Night from 1801 was truly infernal. Here is the round-the-clock labour sweating out iron for industry and construction. Its clouds of smoke are lit by the furnaces, with white-hot spoil and smut rising into the night. A team of horses draws finished castings away from the site, towards the viewer, as boys watch from amid the debris. Here is a new sub-genre, the industrial landscape, and a glimpse into the fires not of some spiritual hell, but the hell of humans, toiling on earth, in a small, previously rural and wooded valley in Shropshire, England.
But steam power brought more socially acceptable sights.
William Powell Frith’s The Railway Station (1862) captures some of the atmosphere of a major railway station in a capital city – in this case, Paddington Station in London, which by coincidence was Brunel’s terminus for his Great Western Railway. Stations like this became a focus of activity, emotional partings and arrivals, migration, and a fair bit of crime too – everything the narrative painter might wish for.
Britain may have been the first to build railways, but the mania spread like wildfire across Europe and North America.
As the railroad, it started to cover the far greater distances of the USA and Canada. William Hahn’s Southern Pacific R.R. Station at Sacramento (c 1873-4) shows its rapid growth there.
Smoke, steam and other atmospheric effects brought inspiration to the French artists who were developing painting from where Turner’s death had left it.
France had been an early innovator and adopter, although such non-classical motifs wouldn’t have been appropriate for the Salon, of course. It took Édouard Manet painting his favourite model Victorine Meurent, in Le chemin de fer (The Railway) (1873), to break the ice. Its background is the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris. This painting was completed and sold in 1873 to the singer and avid collector Jean-Baptiste Faure, and astonishingly was the only painting accepted of three submitted to the Salon by Manet the following year.
Its appearance in the Salon provoked outrage and ridicule, and a torrent of sarcastic cartoons in the press.
Near Manet’s painting in the Salon, a couple of works by Giuseppe De Nittis were given a much warmer reception. Yet sometime between 1869 and 1880, De Nittis painted The Passing of a Train, his unashamed comment on the coming of the train.
As De Nittis, Monet, Pissarro, and the other Impressionists started painting in even more unacceptable styles around Paris, trains and railways came to appear even more.
Claude Monet’s The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil (1873) is one of his several landscapes centred on the railway from the years immediately after the Franco-Prussian War. At this time, Monet was a regular commuter by train: when he, Camille and his son moved out to Argenteuil at the end of 1871, he travelled the short distance into Paris by train.
Monet liked this bridge so much that he painted it again the following year, in The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil (1874).
Steam power in more industrial settings was far less popular as a theme for artists. Yet much of the industry of the day relied on steam engines to drive its machinery.
Adolph von Menzel’s The Iron Rolling Mill from 1875 gives a good impression of the crowded, sweaty, and dangerous environment in which iron and steel workers spent much of their lives, harnessed to the power of steam in machines driven by belts.