Charles Sheeler was an artist and photographer who worked in the 1930s. He embraced the industrial landscape of North America as a legitimate and, in its own way, beautiful expression of the machine age modernism of industrial capitalism. Not surprisingly, trains and tracks feature in Sheeler’s work.
Sheeler is usually associated with the “precisionist” school of painting. This was a form of painting that combined the formal conceits of cubism with observational realism.
Sheeler was also part of a wider American cultural project. This was to position North America as the end-point of the global cultural phenomenon of Modernism. This project, conceptualised by Alfred Barr, of NYCs MoMa, was an attempt to connect Moscow, Berlin, Paris and New York in a single coherent trajectory of progress and innovation. That’s quite a train ride.
Barr’s project established the terms by which America was able to leverage the scale and critical mass of its productive energy to project soft “cultural” power across the globe. The choice of explicitly “American” themes was, accordingly, an expression of cultural maturity and independence from the old world (Europe).
A note about the train… The 1930s marked the apogee of steam locomotion in the USA. The engines were distinguished by a combination of size, engineering, performance and styling. The engineering development of the engines allowed them to haul great loads at speed and over the great distances of the American continent.
The engine was a 4-6-4 Hudson (or Baltic) type locomotive made for the New York Central Railway. The numbers refer to the wheel arrangements of the engine. These engines were superseded, after WW2, by diesel traction.
The “streamlined” styling of Modernist America applied itself to everything from architecture and engineering to consumer products. The main figures associated with form of industrial design were Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and Norman Bel Geddes.
You can infer all of this (scale, styling and performance) in Sheeler’s painting from the details of the picture. The driving wheels, for example, are of a new design that replaces the traditional spokes with a disc.
As it happens, the wheel details are taken from the engine styling by Henry Dreyfuss for The 20th Century Limited . This service provided the rail passenger service between New York and Chicago. The streamlined styling provided for this train was an expression of the speed and comfort of the service.
The train service to Chicago was crucial in connecting the two most important business centres in the USA. Furthermore, Chicago marked the beginning of the rail network into the mid-west and beyond.
The train service was used in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, North by Northwest. I’ve posted before about Hitchcock and trains…
Here are some great poster images of the engine and train.