Over the half millennium or so for which we have a good painted record of what has happened in Europe, transport has changed beyond all recognition. We’ve gone from horseback and ox-carts to high-speed trains, jet aircraft and more cars than we can cope with. This weekend’s paintings trace that revolution from the eighteenth century to the twentieth.
Travelling over land or water has been limited mostly by the power available. Until vehicles and vessels could have their own engines, improving on the performance of horses and sails wasn’t feasible. Moving over the land, through the air, was a different matter, and a longstanding human ambition.
In the early eighteenth century, Europeans started to experiment with hot air balloons, and during the autumn of 1783 the Montgolfier brothers in France started making the first human ascents using hot air balloons. The British remained sceptical of the safety and merits of this French advance, and it took George Biggin’s Ascent in Lunardi’s Balloon, painted here by the wonderfully named Julius Caesar Ibbetson in 1785-88, to break the ice for them.
Although an impressive achievement, balloons were far from ideal as a means of travel, and useless for moving the heavy loads required by the Industrial Revolution. For those the much slower and more prosaic canal barge was the solution of the eighteenth century.
In about 1832, JMW Turner painted a view of Dudley Castle and the Dudley Canal, one of the busy industrial waterways dug around Birmingham in the English Midlands during the late eighteenth century. In 1835 that painting was turned into this fine engraving, providing one of the best visual records of a heavily industrialised canal during this period before the advent of the railways.
Steam engines also developed during the eighteenth century, and in 1788 the first steamboat began operating along the Delaware River in the USA. The first decade of the nineteenth century saw the first commercially successful steam-powered boats and vehicles, and in 1825 the first steam locomotive hauled passengers on a public railway. JMW Turner was among the first major artists to record these advances.
In 1842 Turner put a steamship at the centre of a vortex in his Snow Storm, Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Its drama was heightened by the story that Turner had himself lashed to the mast so that he could observe this storm properly – almost certainly false and quite unnecessary anyway. As a seasoned Channel traveller, Turner would have had ample previous experience.
Turner wasted no time in depicting the rapid spread of the steam train, in his remarkably early Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway from 1844. Showing one of the very early steam locomotives built for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s huge and innovative Great Western Railway, this express is crossing the River Thames at Maidenhead. Until then, that had been a sleepy country town; now it was within commuting distance of the centre of London. This section of its line from London to Bristol had only been opened in the summer of 1839, and reached Bristol two years later.
Peder Balke shows an early steamship battling with extreme conditions in his Rough Sea with a Steamship Near the Norwegian Coast from about 1847-50. This painting must have been among the first to show such a ship under way in such remote parts.
Despite some misguided attempts, steam power was never going to conquer the air, but balloons still had their uses.
One of the more famous balloon flights made from Paris is shown in Jules Didier and Jacques Guiaud’s painting of the Departure of Gambetta in the Balloon ‘Armand-Barbès’ on 7 October 1870 (c 1870), during the Franco-Prussian War. By the time that the Prussians had encircled Paris, a delegation from the French government had been sent to Tours, leaving Léon Gambetta, Minister of the Interior, trapped in the city.
Gambetta arranged to be flown from the foot of Montmartre in a balloon filled with coal-gas, escaping on 7 October 1870. His balloon, named Armand-Barbès, was one of over sixty being used to transport mail and carrier pigeons from and to Paris at the time, giving an idea as to how popular ballooning had become.
In addition to being the century of steam and ballooning, the nineteenth century saw the development of the bicycle, which had greater impact on the everyday life of people across Europe, and transformed personal transport around the world.
Édouard Manet’s remarkably early oil sketch Le Vélocipédiste (The Cyclist) from 1871 is probably the first depiction of a bicycle by a major painter. Others followed, some still on their ‘penny farthings’.
At this time, Claude Monet had moved his wife Camille and their son out of Paris to Argenteuil, from where the artist regularly commuted by steam train back into the smoke of the city. He seems to have developed an enthusiasm not just for trains, but for railway bridges too, if this painting of The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil from 1874 is anything to go by.
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? Gustave 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 that even seemed to please the critics. Among the paintings from that campaign is his Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877).
While engineers and labourers were hard at work criss-crossing Europe with railway track, civil engineers were starting to prepare roads for increasing vehicle traffic, a vital step in anticipation of self-propelled motor vehicles.
When Giuseppe De Nittis painted this view of The Victoria Embankment, London in 1875, the rutted mud roads only had to support pedestrians, horses and carriages. By 1900 there were plenty of bicycles, early cars and buses, as traffic was growing rapidly.