It is difficult to conjure the social
palpitations induced by the emergence
of train travel.
Back on Track?
A show devoted to the early impact of trains opens just as
railways in the United States are showing new signs of life.
First Class: The Meeting…and at First Meeting Loved (1854; top), by Abraham
Solomon, and Donner Lake from the Summit (1873; above), by Albert Bierstadt,
are two of the paintings on display in Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America
and the Railway, 1830–1960, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
When it opened in 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri, Union Station was
the country’s third largest train station, a vast, balustraded, pilastered
Beaux Arts fantasy of civic uplift. The renowned Chicago architect
Jarvis Hunt, challenged by the financier E. H. Harriman to build a
monument, did just that: it was a self-contained metropolis, complete
with its own jail, a dedicated floor for freight and mail handling, and
the North Waiting Room—capacity 10,000 and the size of a football
field. By 1917, it was handling a record 7 0,000 trains a year. During
World War II, as the Harvard University landscape historian John
Stilgoe wrote in his 2007 book Train Time, the “immense station
throbbed with activity almost impossible to imagine today.” Nearly
half of all soldiers going to war, Stilgoe noted, “walked through its
In the 1960s, in the wake of the interstate-highway system, Union
Station was handling less than half of its World War II peak. Two
decades later, a mere half-dozen passenger trains made a station
stop in Kansas City. The ignominious coup de grâce came in 1985,
when Amtrak moved its remaining operations to a smaller facility.
Following a thorough renovation in the 1990s, Union Station again
bustles with life, but today’s visitors mostly travel no farther than
the museums, shops, and restaurants that are now the station’s stock-in-trade. Instead of catching a train, visitors pilot the vintage-train
simulator at the KC Rail Experience.
Given that many Americans now see train travel in the dim light of
nostalgia, something to be “experienced” in a museum, it is difficult
to conjure the social palpitations induced by the emergence of train
travel in the 1800s. The way artists first responded to the train is the
subject of Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway,
1830–1960, a show at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
(not so far from Union Station), produced in conjunction with the
Walker Art Gallery of the National Museums Liverpool. Something as
seemingly innocent as the train compartment, the cultural historian
Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes in The Railway Journey, broached
a whole series of incipient social questions, ranging from class and
gender mingling to the specter of crime and the question of whether
passengers should speak to one another.
These discrete tensions—or what the show calls “the human drama
of the railway”—are exemplified in First Class: The Meeting…and at
First Meeting Loved, an 1854 work by the English painter Abraham
Solomon. It depicts three people in an ornate first-class compartment:
an elderly man sleeping, a woman playing with her necklace, and a
young man dreamily gazing upon her, his hand propping up his chin.
The painting was denounced as “vulgar”; Solomon, in response, produced a sequel in which the older man is awake and placed between
the pair as chaperone—no hint of licentiousness here! “Victorians
saw the railway compartment as a forum for social comment,” Ian
Kennedy, a curator at the Nelson-Atkins, says, “[on] continued on page 60
Top painting, the National Gallery of Canada; bottom painting, New York Historical Society/
courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; train illustrations, Leon Bonaventura/istockphoto