On Exhibit: ‘Romancing the Rails’ captures golden age of train travel

Chesley Bonestell's painting of the towering New York Central Building on Park Avenue, circa 1929, left, and a painting by Walter L. Greene, longtime artist for General Electric in the early 20th century.
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Chesley Bonestell's painting of the towering New York Central Building on Park Avenue, circa 1929, left, and a painting by Walter L. Greene, longtime artist for General Electric in the early 20th century.

Travel of any sort sounds refreshing after a year of quarantining. Perhaps that’s why “Romancing the Rails,” the latest exhibit to open at the Albany Institute of History & Art, seems so timely.

Through 20th-century photographs, locomotive models and paintings, “Romancing the Rails: Train Travel in the 1920s and 1930s” details the golden age of train travel in the U.S., focusing on the New York Central Railroad.

It starts with a vibrant painting of the towering New York Central Building on Park Avenue, circa 1929. The richly colored oil painting, done by Chesley Bonestell, speaks to the grandiose experience that train companies advertised. “At the gateway to a nation,” reads the bottom edge of the painting.

Further along in the exhibit are similar advertisements, some painted by Walter L. Greene, who worked as a staff artist for General Electric in Schenectady from 1903 to 1940. While he’s well-known for his ability to depict machinery and locomotives, Greene also had a knack for capturing the rugged landscape of the Adirondacks and the mercurial skylines along the Hudson River.

Greene’s works, like the trains they advertised, were transportive, taking viewers to idyllic lands that were just a train ride away.

In Greene’s “Adirondack Mountains, Lake Placid,” distant mountains are covered in dappled sunlight, with white clouds swirling above them. Lake Placid is featured at the center, its shoreline dotted with homes. A deer in the foreground looks back at the viewer as if inviting them to this distant landscape.

In “Storm King in the Heart of the Hudson Highlands,” Greene depicts Storm King Mountain, which is on the western side of the Hudson River, below Newburgh. Sunlight illuminates one side of the grey mountain, which looms in the background, as a locomotive is seen powering through the middle ground. The color palette and style seem reminiscent of the Hudson River School.

These paintings were turned into printed posters, which were distributed at train stations around the country. They were also used for print advertisements, enticing readers to venture beyond the familiar and into wilder places.

The locomotive industry throughout that era needed to create such a romanticized view of train travel because it faced stiff competition from automobiles. Between 1920 and 1940, the number of automobile registrations in the country skyrocketed, going from 8,131,500 to 27,465,800, while during those same years the number of railroad passengers went from 1,269,913,000 to 456,088,000.

Other ways of attracting ridership included modernizing lounges and dining cars. One section of the exhibit focuses on just that with a selection of designs that Henry Dreyfuss created for the 20th Century Limited, which boasted that it could go from New York to Chicago in 16 hours. Dreyfuss was a pioneering industrial designer, known for designing everything from refrigerators to vacuum cleaners. In the 1930s, he also redesigned every aspect of the 20th Century Limited, to make it more modern.

One illustration of Dreyfuss’ work included in the exhibit features the train’s observation end, with an oblong-shaped ceiling and a smattering of chairs facing one another. “The rear of the observation car resembles a superb solarium. Two luxurious semi-circular settees face out, commanding an unobstructed view on all sides. . . Though casual-looking, this super lounge is a glamorous finish to America’s most distinguished train,” reads a promotional pamphlet.

Train travel for the upper class was advertised as a romantic getaway, however, for the African American employees, the journeys involved grueling work and racist treatment.

In 1921, the Pullman Company employed more than 20,000 African American porters, waiters and maids, who were paid low wages, though the jobs were considered respectable at the time.

The exhibition touches on the hardships that these workers faced, through the sheet music for “Pullman Porter Blues,” which was published in 1921.

The cover of the sheet music depicts a racist image of a porter, with large, frowning red lips, and the lyrics “Since I left my home and started on railroads to roam, I get nothing but abuse, so tell me what’s the use,” speak to the mistreatment many faced while creating a luxury experience for the passengers.

“Romancing the Rails” wends its way through the golden age of train travel, highlighting the illustrators, engineers and workers who made it possible.

The exhibit is slated to run through February 2022 and exhibit programming will be announced in the coming weeks. For more information visit albanyinstitute.org.

Categories: Art

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