Delvaux, Night Train


Trains are one of the oldest forms of transportation in the world. Fortunately, they’re still used today for transportation and have drastically upgraded. In 1804, the first train was developed by Richard Trevithick. Since then, trains have made appearances in famous oil paintings and literature. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, oil on canvas paintings featured trains as their sole purpose – a form of transportation. Unlike literature, such as book covers, trains are seen as mysterious and a gateway into crime or another world. The descriptions of trains hook readers like us, leading us down a rabbit hole of uncertainty. My analysis will cover various paintings and literature focusing on trains evoking their impact over the past two hundred years. Many artists and writers saw trains as perfect settings for mundane normalcy and mystery. 

Many artists and authors saw trains as the perfect setting and focal point for their art. Most of the oil on canvas paintings were completed by the following artists’ during the eighteenth century: Paul Delvuax’s Night Train, Augustus Leopold’s The Travelling Companions, René Magritte’s Time Transfixed, William Powell Firth’s The Railroad Station, and Claude Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint- Lazare. Meanwhile, literature from the nineteenth century to the present has featured trains, such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Speaking in literary terms, the trains (or train) in all four books played an epic role in the setting and central conflict. The train takes the characters to their destination, but chaos and adventure happen on the train, pulling the reader in. The reader is destined to follow the main character down this rabbit hole in the trains. 

Leopold, The Traveling Companions
Augustus Leopold, The Traveling Companions via Fine Art America

Many artists captured the early days of trains during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning in 1862, artists Augustus Leopold and William Powell Firth painted scenes of nineteenth-century passengers and train stations. Leopold’s The Travelling Companions is an oil on canvas painting featuring two well-dressed women sitting across from one another. They’re both sitting down in the train cart, but interestingly, they both mirror each other in formation, such as their big dresses and hats, perfect examples of nineteenth-century clothing. Surprisingly, there are some differences, such as the items next to women on the set and the fact that one woman is reading while the other is asleep. However, in Firth’s The Railroad Station, he provided a panoramic view of a train platform. His oil on canvas painting reveals a scene in action. The platform was filled with people during the nineteenth century who were waiting to catch a train. 

William Powell Firth, The Railroad Station
William Powell Firth, The Railroad Station via Wikimedia Commons

Shifting into 1877, Claude Monet painted an Impressionist painting, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, depicting a steam train arriving at the Gare Saint-Lazare station. The train is from Normandy, given the painting's title. Like Firth’s painting, Monet’s depicts a scene in action with the people and steam train. 

Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare
Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare via Wikipedia

During the twentieth century, surrealist artists shifted their perspective and made trains appear baffling and mystical. In 1938, René Magritte painted a train coming out of a fireplace called Time Transfixed. Magritte intended to evoke mystery and wonder with his image for his viewers. Then, in 1947, Paul Delvaux, another surrealist artist, painted an image of a group of nude women in a train cart. His painting emits erotic vibes with the dark room, inferring the composition depicts a night-time train ride. This could very well be a brothel held on the train with the clothed woman being the madame and the two nude women prostitutes.

René Magritte, Time Transfixed
René Magritte, Time Transfixed via Artsy

In literature, trains served as a magical portal into another world and the scene of a murder. The authors, both children and young adult authors, made trains more than just a form of transportation. Trains were the arcs in their plotlines and for their characters. The origins of trains in literature started with Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express. Christie writes about the adventures of Hercule Poirot, a detective who gets mixed up in solving a murder on the Orient Express, which serves as the main setting. Moving forward in 1985, The Polar Express, one of the most famous children’s books, was published. The children’s picture book, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, features a black train on the front cover in the snow at night. Allsburg’s illustration immediately draws readers into this prodigious and ghoulish-looking train. Allsburg has placed readers in the shows of his protagonist, a young boy who does not believe in Santa Claus. Yet, in spite of his belief, the train serves as a gateway and portal to the North Pole, another dimension, proving the magic of Christmas exists by believing. 

The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train via The New York Times
The Murder on the Orient Express
The Murder on the Orient Express via Eagle Beat

By the twenty-first century, trains in literature took a pivotal turn, becoming an icon thanks to J.K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. Since the first Harry Potter book’s publication in 1998, Rowling has transported her readers into the world of Hogwarts through a train. Harry takes the Hogwarts Express to Hogwarts in the series' first three books. The train serves as a gateway to Hogwarts, where all the magic and adventure for Harry, but more importantly, the train leads Harry to his home to escape his evil relatives. So, the train is a portal. Shifting towards adult fiction, in the 2015 novel The Girl on the Train, author Paula Hawkins writes about a newly divorced and lonely woman who takes the train every day. She watches and obsesses over a “perfect” younger woman from the train window. However, things get spooky when the perfect younger gets killed. Although the train doesn’t take the narrator anywhere specifically, the train metaphorically leads the narrator into a murder mystery. Unlike Christie's novel, the murder in Hawkins’s thriller happens off the train. 

Jonny Duddle, Illustration of the Hogwarts Express
Jonny Duddle, Illustration of the Hogwarts Express via Arena Illustrations

Personally, I love trains. They’re my favorite form of transportation over driving and flying. In my lifetime, I have ridden trains multiple times. For example, growing up in Chicago for a short period of time, I took the train to go to Downtown Chicago. Then, in college, I took a train from Rome to Florence while on vacation, and lastly, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe for the past year. Also, I rode the Hogwarts Express in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for fun. Of all the rides there, the train is so relaxing. So, I love riding trains for the thrill of it and the view you see from the window. I don’t care how old I get; I love watching and hearing trains approach the train station with the smoke going everywhere. Then, the train stops, and you see the ticket guy standing at the entrance of the side cart to scan your train ticket. It’s so majestic and relaxing for me. 

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