Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was the first painter to topicalize the steam railway among impressionist painters.
In the France of the 1870s, it was not conventional to paint the steam locomotive because it was considered an ugly monster that would advance forward at an extraordinary speed with roaring sounds. Railroads were also considered intruders in the natural landscapes. Therefore, painters avoided painting sceneries in which the steam railway would be prominent. If a train had to be depicted, it was usually drawn small and from a distant view and was never the main player but a by-player. Even in such cases, the work was usually a drawing or a print and never an oil painting.
Thus, members of the impressionist group lead by Claude Monet (1840–1926) were considered innovators in the sense that they were the first painters in France to topicalize the steam railway through oil paintings in the 1870s. It has been said that Monet’s A Train in the Country (1870) (Fig. 1) is the earliest impressionist railway painting. (Nevertheless, I would like to point out that, in A Train in the Country (Fig. 1), the steam locomotive was kept hidden behind trees.)
Fig. 2 Paul Cézanne The Ferry at Bonnières (summer of 1866)
Interestingly, Cézanne topicalized the steam railway about four years before Monet did. In fact, Cézanne painted The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2) in the summer of 1866. If one actually stands at the spot from which the scene is viewed, one will notice that the Bonnières station on the Paris to Le Havre line is near the telegraph pole, which is to the left, and the train passes from the right to the left (Fig. 3). Cézanne who took this spot to sketch must have recognized this specific scene.
Fig. 3 A train passing through Bonnières station (filmed by the author on August 28, 2006)
Moreover, according to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1977), in the nineteenth century, the telegraph network developed along with the railway network to facilitate the smooth operation of the train system. When the Bonnières station was established on May 9, 1843, the telegraph pole and electric wires, which Cezanne depicts, were a definite part of the railway system; Cézanne painted two railway subjects: “a station” and “a telegraph pole and electric wires” in The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2).