Benton Museum's locomotive watercolor exhibit now open

Aline Hoffman looks at the "Steaming Ahead: Reginald Marsh Watercolors of Locomotives" exhibit at the Benton Museum of Art on Thursday.  (Mustafe Mussa/The Daily Campus)

The William Benton Museum of Art opened its latest exhibit, “Steaming Ahead: Reginald Marsh Watercolors of Locomotives” Thursday night. Vice President of The Valley Railroad Co. Audrey Conrad spoke at the event, explaining some of the intricacies of the pieces and answering questions about early 1900s steam locomotives.

American painter Reginald Marsh was famous for his depictions of early 1900s New York and the surrounding areas, focusing on social realism and the everyday lives of those living in the city.

Marsh attended Yale in the 1910s and befriended William Benton, future Connecticut senator and the namesake of the William Benton Museum. Marsh gave over 1000 of his works to Benton, a collection that currently resides in the archives of the Benton Museum, according to its Executive Director Nancy Stula.

The Benton’s exhibit highlights some of Marsh’s lesser-known subjects in the collection: 25 different prints and watercolors of 1920s to 1940s-era steam trains.    

“When you think of Reginald Marsh, you don’t think of locomotives,” Stula said. “You think Coney Island, or burlesque theaters.”

The majority of the pieces on display are either sketches or watercolors of locomotives from the The Erie Railroad terminal in Jersey City, New Jersey, according to Stula.

Robert T. Leo, a major contributor to the museum, helped choose the art pieces for the exhibit. Stula recruited Conrad to help write captions for the paintings, identifying the types of trains and their uses.

Conrad, who said she was not so much an art historian as an “art aficionado,” said that she was impressed by the intricacy of art.

“The paintings are anatomically correct,” Conrad said. “[Marsh] knew a lot about steam locomotives. He gets it, as far as the position of all these different [locomotive] parts.”

Steam locomotives, Conrad said, were more specialized than modern-day diesel-fueled engines. Marsh’s works are so accurate that it’s actually possible to identify the type, age, mileage and use of the locomotives he painted.

Marsh was able to paint the trains so accurately, Conrad said, because of the nature of his location. Trains were easier to draw when stationary, especially in the service facility of the Erie terminal, which Marsh frequented.

“[The locomotives] were sitting there, posing for Marsh,” Conrad said.

In the talk, Conrad detailed the infrastructure of 1920s trains. Before airlines, steam trains were the main method of transportation for the middle and upper class in America. These trains therefore provided their passengers with luxurious accommodations, Conrad said.

Individual cars were owned by private companies, such as the Pullman Car Company, which paid for the cars and sold the passenger the ticket for their seat, Conrad said. Passengers had the option of sleeper cars or even “porter cars,” which the Pullman Co. was famous for.

Porter cars were the equivalent of first class seats, Conrad said. Passengers would be seated in lounge-style chairs and have a porter, who was usually black, Conrad said, at their beck and call.

Part of the Benton exhibit included a “porter’s chair,” which porters sat on in between passenger calls. The chair, which Conrad described as “child-size,” was designed to be uncomfortable, Conrad said, so that the porter didn’t fall asleep on shift.

In addition to describing the history of 1920s steam trains, Conrad also answered questions from the audience on how locomotives were used and organized, how they refueled on long trips and even how to predict the maximum speed of a steam train, based on its wheels.

Audience members said they appreciated Conrad’s knowledge of the subject.

“It was very engaging,” said Aline Hoffman, a resident of Coventry and an artist herself. “[Conrad] did a beautiful job. She answered all the questions very well, and I like how she was able to reference some of the specifics of the paintings.”

University of Connecticut emeritus Michael Zito said he was surprised by the lesser-known subject of Marsh's works shown in the exhibit.

“Marsh is a great artist,” Zito said. “I was unaware that he had a talent of replicating the authenticity of the locomotives of the area. The Benton is a treasure for this campus.”

Stula expressed the possibility of displaying other pieces from the Benton’s Marsh collection in the future. Currently, the locomotive exhibit and Marsh’s paintings of Havana, Cuba, are available for digital viewing on the museum’s website, she said.

“This is the first time we’re having two online exhibits,” Stula said. “We plan to have [future] exhibits of Marx's works. It’s not scheduled yet.”   

Marsh is a great artist. I was unaware that he had a talent of replicating the authenticity of the locomotives of the area.
— Michael Zito

‘Steaming Ahead: Reginald Marsh Watercolors of Locomotives’ will be on display from October 20 to December 18th at the William Benton Museum of Art. Hours are Tuesday–Friday 10:00 to 4:30 and Saturday & Sunday 1:00 to 4:30. Closed on Mondays.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.