Exhibit of the week
Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America, and the Railway, 1830–1960
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
Through Jan. 18

“At the burning heart of the Industrial Revolution was the white-hot power” of the steam locomotive, said Richard B. Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. During the 19th century, it changed the face of modern life. “Its speed and reach shattered limits of space and time.” Forests were uprooted to make way for tracks, cities sprang up along major lines, and the world was chopped into uniform time zones to conform with the railway’s timetable. An impressive new exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum “presents more than a century of ambitious responses by artists to this intrusive phenomenon.” First-class works by Claude Monet and Edouard Manet, who were among the first major artists to respond to the changing world, interestingly interact with works by “less celebrated figures.” With excellent critical judgment and “smart editing,” curators capture the spirit of a turbulent century.

“Beginning in the mid-1830s, early aquatints and printed books illustrate the excitement of new railway travel,” said Dana Self in the Kansas City Pitch. In Europe, painters fascinated by the spectacle of the high and low classes sharing the same transportation made “economic status” a major preoccupation. “When the exhibition shifts to America, familiar motifs of Manifest Destiny emerge.” Railways bound together the expanding nation. Albert Bierstadt’s Donner Lake From the Summit shows the railway breezing through previously impassable terrain. “Andrew Melrose’s Westward the Star of Empire Takes Its Way—Near Council Bluffs, Iowa gorgeously presents the train as commanding and beneficent, a literal and mythical light in the darkness.”

Few of the works in this exhibition are masterpieces in their own right, said Barrymore Laurence Scherer in The Magazine Antiques. Even photographs by masters such as Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, and railway-inspired works by surrealist René Magritte, are included because of their themes rather than their artistic quality. But Art in the Age of Steam provides a chance to see “genre painting par excellence.” In the best works—many by artists you’ve never heard of—you can almost catch “the fragrance of coal smoke, not to mention the unmistakable patter song of wheels clattering along jointed rails.” Many communicate excitement or at least optimism about the new technology. By contrast, an 1892 painting by Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, depicting a female criminal, takes the prize “for sheer pathos.” The woman sits between two stern guards, “her wrists in chains, slumped despondently on the hard wooden bench of a third-class carriage.” She’s headed not toward a bright future but to “certain death.”