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We are all aware of how great inventions have revolutionised our lives. The same, to a lesser extent, applies to their effect upon art. Of course, not as many inventions affect art. The invention of oil painting, of course, had a profound, direct effect, as did photography, paint in tubes, electricity, the computer and trains. Trains? How could trains effect art? Well, initially at least, artists used trains the way everyone else did, to get from one place to another quickly, cheaply and comfortably. But their effect was probably first noticed in France. They allowed city born and bred artist the opportunity to travel to the countryside to paint. The Barbizon School of Fountainbleu Forrest were some of the first artists to make use of the modern miracle of steam locomotion. They could leave from Paris' Gare Saint-Lazare in the early morning, get to the countryside before midday, paint while the light was good, and still be home by dinner. It practically made the work of a painter a nine-to-five job.

One has to wonder how much "en plein air" painting would have been done had the locomotive and its entourage not made the whole effort so convenient. Gradually, as Impressionist artists adjusted to this convenience, they began to take it for granted, and turned to painting the trains themselves...or more accurately, the train stations. Monet especially, was fascinated by the great glass car sheds and the way they captured and held the light amidst the smoke and steam belching from the mechanical mammoths housed below. His Gare Saint-Lazare, painted in 1877, is an interesting example. Artists such as Daumier and Renoir even began to paint and draw the commuters. Daumier's 1864 Third Class Passage illustrates this element. Beyond painting though, these train stations also forced architects to take a look at the product of their creative efforts as well.

The problem was, the activities these buildings were designed to contain didn't fit neatly into the old, Beaux-arts, Gothic, or Classical styles. First of all they were too big. Second, they were too expensive to build out of stone, and wood wasn't fireproof. They demanded metal--cast iron. But, despite their best efforts, cast iron didn't lend itself easily to any of the traditional styles either. The solution came from a most unlikely source--greenhouses. Glass! Framed in wood, supported by stark, naked, utilitarian iron and steel trusses, this new "art medium" could span vast spaces with far fewer support columns and a far lower cost than anything else available. But it looked...well...ugly, to nineteenth century eyes at least. In borrowing from greenhouses they tended to look like greenhouses. It took a century of international exhibitions with their Crystal Palaces and other magnificent exhibition halls to acclimate architects and the public to a new architectural aesthetic--one of light, seemingly delicate, soaring grace--buildings that no longer had windows but were windows.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 April 1999


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