Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Leslie Ragan's Visions of Progress

Though this doesn't fall in the realm of "pop surrealism" or "lowbrow" or "phantasmagoric neo-romanticism" or whatever you'd like to call the art movement generally addressed on this blog, I thought I'd introduce a painter from the early 20th century whose work I nevertheless find captivating.

Leslie Ragan painted trains – heroic trains from an Art Deco fantasy of travel, epic landscapes pierced by sleek battering rams of potential, magical realist visions of progress from the Machine Age. Yet Ragan was just a commercial artist who specialized in transportation, and none of his work was very highly regarded during his lifetime. In recent years, however, auction prices for vintage posters of his New York Central trains have skyrocketed.

This powerful Art Deco poster, painted in 1938, is perhaps Ragan's most famous. Travel by Train, a great book which surveys 80 years of train advertising art, describes it better than I can:

"Significant in subject, setting and style, this work depicts the 20th Century Limited, the nation's foremost passenger train, as streamlined by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss in 1938... 'One of the most distinctive pieces of machinery ever seen on any track,' bragged New York Central System publicists... Recognized today as a defining American machine age poster image, it is often compared to the work of renowned European poster artist A. M. Cassandre. Set along the Hudson River, famously promoted as the "Water Level Route," the image focuses on the locomotive's hallmark aluminum fin (meant to recall a Roman Centurion's helmet) while deliberately masking mechanical details in shadow."

For New York Central's 1945 calendar, Ragan painted this surreal winter wonderland in which to set the 20th Century Limited passing through the Mohawk River Valley along the Water Level Route, the first four-track long-distance railroad in the world. For some reason, I have always been certain that this image inspired Chris van Allsburg's illustrations for The Polar Express. We'll have to wait to hear from van Allsburg to know for sure, I guess. It also reminds me quite strongly of a scene in Mark Helprin's wonderful magical realist novel Winter's Tale.

Some have suggested that this image, "For the Public Service," which Ragan painted for New York Central in 1946, would make a terrific cover for Ayn Rand's transcontinental railroad fantasy Atlas Shrugged. It does inspire one to believe that these heroic engines have mighty hearts beating with the desire to pull mankind forward into the future. As one auction catalog described the image:

"This powerful calendar cover design, set at Chicago's La Salle Street Station with the Ceres-topped Board of Trade Building towering in the background, proudly displays each engine model of the Central fleet, from the old-fashioned steam engine to the postwar marvel of the Diesel and the Streamlined Steam marvel, the 20th Century Limited. This inspired Ragan image promotes the both the glitz of passenger service and the bread-and-butter of the freight lines."

Born in Woodbine, Iowa in 1897, Leslie Ragan went to the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines and then to the Art Institute in Chicago. Afterward, he had a studio in Chicago and taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute for several years before moving on to New York, California, and Europe – eventually settling on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

In 1927 and 1928, Ragan created at least six South Shore Line posters, and between 1929 and the late '40s, he produced more than one hundred posters for the New York Central Railroad.

During World War II, Ragan joined the Office of War Information, where he worked painting war recruitment and propaganda posters like this one celebrating the newly minted United Nations.

Travel by Train describes this Ragan wartime image as "a poster produced during World War II by the railroad company to indicate their commitment to the war effort. Leslie Ragan takes his art one step further here and adds a propagandistic element, creating a powerful, proud and evocative image of a New York Central Line locomotive coursing through the night (working around the clock) beneath the eternal vigilance of the Statue of Liberty."

Travel by Train informs us that this amazing view of Chicago, painted in 1929, was Ragan's first poster for New York Central.

"Ragan's New York Central poster style represented a maturation of his earlier work. During the late 1920s, as one of a half-dozen artists who designed posters for the Chicago South Shore & South Bend, an interurban line that traversed the scenic Lake Michigan coast, Ragan painted landscape views that showed the influence of his peers, as he experimented with color and form. In particular he was influenced by Oscar Rabe Hanson (1901-1925), whose golden colors and pastoral images evoked heartland contentment...
He also drew inspiration from the work of pioneering American illustrator N. C. Wyeth, to create images characterized by strong contrast and vivid color.

Ragan's early New York Central work was formal and traditional in conception; it focused on architecture, the outstanding example of Modernism in America. His first NYC poster, a cityscape of Chicago's Michigan Avenue dominated by a towering midday thunderhead, was produced late in 1929; its interplay of reflected light and building mass only hinted at what was to follow."

Many of Ragan's paintings of the New York Central fleet are now thought of as iconic visions of the Machine Age, but the railroad simply used this one for the cover of a brochure. Though it must have been intended to convey the scenic allure of autumn splendor, this image has always given me the impression that the state of New York must have some glorious desert badlands hidden away somewhere.

Soon after the war, the train poster petered out as an art form, and the work of commercial painters was mostly relegated to the pages of four-color magazines, menus and brochures. After his work for New York Central was completed in the late '40s, Leslie Ragan continued to glorify mobility and progress for other transportation companies, including Norfolk & Western, Seaboard Air Line and the Budd Company, until his death in 1972.

In the foreword to the 1927 Annual of Advertising Art, W. H. Beatty summarized his view of the impact commercial art should seek to create in the viewer:

"Advertising art must be and is lively art, not to be confused with the reposeful static kind of expression that one expects to find in museums pungent with historic camphor. These pictures represent much experimentation and daring, much reaching out for the new, as they should, for they reflect the same churning endlessness that competitive business does, if not American life itself. Perhaps when a future historian of this American scene has relegated such things as business profits, quotas and earnings to footnotes on the bottom of his page... it will be bits of pageantry like this that will appeal to him."

Intrigued by these bits of pageantry? Find out more here:

Moonlight in Duneland: The Illustrated Story of the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad by Ronald Cohen and Stephen McShane, Quarry Books, 2004.

Travel by Train: The American Railroad Poster, 1870-1950 by Michael Zega and John Gruber, Indiana University Press, 2002.

As a special treat for those faithful readers who've bothered to get this far, here are a couple of extremely rare New York Central posters by Leslie Ragan that you won't see elsewhere:


Unknown said...

Thank you, these posters are beautiful and inspiring. I also enjoyed the text.

Laureen said...

I have an old poster of the New York Central called Trains that pass through the Night. New York Central. Is this a collectors print?

karina said...

I have just bought the original artwork for the New York Central system poster, for a song in Florence, who should I go to to have it valued?


Very interesting. Which one? You might call the Huntington Library in Pasadena. They have a significant collection of Ragan's work, and could perhaps give you some advice on the best way to get an appraisal.

karina said...

The one with the three Henry Dreyfuss trains in New York,with the beautiful clouds, think it was used for the NY to Chicago line. I will try to get an email address for them as I am in the North of England and to phone would be quite difficult! Thanks for the help.


Wow, that's a fantastic find! Here are email contacts for the various art experts at the Huntington:

karina said...

I will let you know how I get on with them and what they say, thanks for all of your help!

Unknown said...

I have one of Ragan's South Shore posters. It hangs at the foot of my staircase, reminding me, every time I come downstairs, of my Chicago roots (even though I was a North sider and never rode the South Shore Line). I did not know anything about the artist until this blog post. Thanks for the information.


You're welcome! I think his images are captivating and I don't understand why it's so hard to find out more about him. I really enjoyed collecting every scrap of information I could find about him in one place.

karina said...

Sold mine recently through Clars, didn't even reach reserve!