By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, steam power had become so essential to modern life that it was assimilated into the everyday. Paul Cézanne’s family estate in Aix-en-Provence was connected by rail to Paris by 1856, and express trains to the Mediterranean coast enabled many artists whose studios were in the capital to paint in the remarkable light of the Midi. The prominent light ochre structure sweeping across many of Cézanne’s views of Mont Saint-Victoire is the long viaduct build to accommodate the railway which transported artists between Paris and the coast of the Midi.
In 1877, Claude Monet became the most painterly railway buff of them all. By then, he was becoming detached from Argenteuil, and sought a new, radically modern, and urban theme. Where more appropriate than the steaming hubbub of the Gare Saint Lazare? Caillebotte paid the rent for him on a small studio nearby, and Monet gained approval to paint in the station. By the third Impressionist Exhibition of April 1877, Monet had assembled seven views of the station, including one which even seemed to please the critics. Among the paintings from that campaign is his Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877).
Monet was too smitten to stop in the station, though. In his Train Tracks at the Saint-Lazare Station (1877) he reversed the view and started to show signalling.
He went even further in his Saint-Lazare Station, the Western Region Goods Sheds (1877), showing the working parts, and the smoky city beyond.
Steamships were plying the waters of the seas around Europe, even into the vast fjords of Norway, where they brought regular postal and cargo services and the first tourists.
Eilert Adelsteen Normann painted Romsdal Fjord in 1877, by which time summer services were well-established.
Groundworks for the major reconstruction of the centre of Paris during the late nineteenth century also depended on steam power. In Armand Guillaumin’s painting of Pont Marie, Quai Sully from 1878 the heavy crane is surrounded by a cloud of steam. This contrasts with long row of more traditional technology, the horse and cart.
Although Norway was a greater challenge for the railway engineers, Frits Thaulow seized the opportunity to show the results in The Train is Arriving from 1881. The country’s first public steam-hauled railway was developed by the son of George Stephenson, whose Rocket locomotive had inaugurated the first steam railway in the world. It opened in 1854, and during the 1870s progressively made its way to Trondheim.
Eilert Adelsteen Normann’s Steamship Calling at Lofoten (1885) shows this mountainous archipelago in the far north of Norway. Steamship services replaced other forms of transport for shipping goods and cargoes along the coast of Norway from about 1880 onwards; what appears here to be a small coaster most probably moved bulk agricultural cargoes on a fairly regular basis.
In 1888, Vincent van Gogh gave us The Blue Train (Viaduct in Arles).
Christian Ludwig Bokelmann’s oil sketch of a Lead Mine in Selbeck (1888) shows another industry which had come to rely on steam power to increase its productivity, and perhaps lessen the toll of occupational lead poisoning. A little of the lead mined here may ultimately have made its way into artists’ paints.
Albert Rieger’s Steamship on the Coast shows an early paddle steamer in trouble on a rocky coast, presumably somewhere in the Mediterranean. Paddle steamers immerse very little of their paddles in the water, which allows them to have shallow drafts and thus operate in very shallow waters. However they are dangerous in rough seas, when the waves and swell leave them without any of the paddle in the water, thus little control over their course. They readily blew onto lee shores like this, and were wrecked.
By the twentieth century, painting trains became something of a sub-genre, particularly now that steam trains have almost disappeared in Europe.
Eric Ravilious is one example of a twentieth century artist who painted motifs deeply embedded in the railway, in his Train Landscape (1940).
The new century also brought the beginning of the end of the power of steam, marked in an unexpected twist of history. Between 1898 and 1900, a new railway station, initially known as the Gare d’Orléans, was built on the bank of the Seine at Quai d’Orsay, Paris. The first electrified urban railway terminal in the world, it was a star of the Exposition Universelle in 1900 – at which many Impressionist paintings were exhibited.
Victor Marec’s painting shows construction work being progressed in 1899, with a steam locomotive hauling construction trucks.
The Gare d’Orsay, as it became, started to suffer physical limitations in 1939, and its upper levels closed from 1973. In 1986 it re-opened as the most extensive collection of Impressionist art in the world, the Musée d’Orsay.