In the mid-1850s the president of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad commissioned one of the nation’s foremost landscape painters, George Inness, to capture his burgeoning rail line on canvas. The president picked Scranton, Pennsylvania, for the setting, and specified that Inness include a roundhouse that was not yet constructed. Other painters previously had made many images of railroads, but they generally submerged the trains in greenery and amidst water features in the tradition of the Hudson River School of painting. Inness, however, put the train and accompanying facilities at the center of the work, placing the “machine in the garden,” to use the phrase made famous by Leo Marx in his book by the same name. In doing so, Inness followed the precepts of Europe’s Barbizon School that emphasized realism and more contrast of light and shadow. The Lackawanna’s president appears to have objected that his train and buildings were not large enough. Whatever he thought, the painting is now considered “by far the most interesting American painting of a railway subject” and hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. For nearly 200 years, railroad subjects have beguiled artists at every level, from fine artists, as in this example, to the most naïve of creators.
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