BNSF's art collection captures the American West

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Friday, November 15, 2019

John Fery depicted scenes around Glacier National Park. BNSF Railway photo.
When you walk past four stainless steel passenger cars and into the visitor’s entrance to the BNSF Railway headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, it’s immediately clear the company is proud to be a railroad – and is equally proud of its long history. The museum-like reception area is filled with railroad artwork and artifacts, from drumheads and steam locomotive diagrams to track components and a velocipede.

The BNSF campus also is home to a magnificent 800-plus piece art collection that dates back to the railroad’s Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Santa Fe predecessors.

The Great Northern’s James J. Hill and Louis W. Hill didn’t set out to create the first corporate art collection in the country when they commissioned great artists of the day. But that was the unintentional result of their efforts to promote passenger travel and the West, says Bradley Houston of C2 Art Advisors, which manages the collection for BNSF.

Although the scenic vistas depicted in the GN, NP, and AT&SF artwork are as different as the mountains of Montana and the arid Southwest, the railroads commissioned the paintings for exactly the same reason: To beckon travelers to the American West during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.

The art was commissioned at a time when few had seen the wonders of the West. The paintings were reproduced by the thousands on calendars, brochures, signs, and other promotional materials. “They were this interesting intersection of cultural patronage, commerce for the railroad, and the historical development of the country,” Houston says.

Grand Canyon by William R. Leigh. BNSF Railway photo
The area around what became Glacier National Park is a common theme in the GN and NP artwork, while the Grand Canyon and Native American life in the Southwest dominates the Santa Fe pieces. The artwork introduced many Americans to landscapes and cultures of the West. “It would have looked very, very exotic,” Houston says.

Houston led a tour of the collection while I was visiting BNSF headquarters as part of my reporting for the Trains Magazine December cover story, “Bigger in Texas.” The paintings line many hallways in the sprawling headquarters. Few, however, depict the railroad itself. “The point of these artistic masterpieces was not to showcase the railroad,” Houston says. “It was to showcase the destinations of the railroad. So you really only see a handful of images with trains.”

Not that you miss railroad scenes. The artists’ panoramic vistas are so dramatic that they capture the grandeur of the West better than photography ever could – then or now. “These were remarkable vistas,” Houston says.

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. BNSF Railway photo
The collection includes 50 Great Northern works by John Fery, who painted more than 300 scenes around what's now Glacier National Park. It’s the largest collection of paintings by the Austrian-born landscape artist. Northern Pacific hired the famed landscape painter Thomas Moran, whose works in the BNSF collection include scenes of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The Santa Fe logo appears in this E.I. Couse painting, Grinding Corn. BNSF Railway photo
The Santa Fe side of the collection includes numerous paintings by E.I. Couse, who chronicled Native American tribes in the Southwest. His work, along with other Taos Society of Artists painters hired by the Santa Fe, shows the intermingling of cultures in the Santa Fe’s territory, including former Mexicans, Native Americans, and immigrants passing through. “In that sense, the collection really shows you this landscape, this vista of the great American West, but also a little more of a genre idea of the daily life and rituals of people who would have been part of that journey west,” Houston says.

The collection also captures Native American life in vivid detail, from Couse’s Santa Fe painting “Grinding Corn” to Winold Reiss’s colorful portraits of members of the Blackfeet tribe around Glacier National Park. Reiss, a German, used a translator to speak with his subjects – and a second person to keep the interpreter awake during marathon painting sessions, Houston says.

BNSF's headquarters, which includes its high technology Network Operations Center, is thoroughly modern in every way. The art collection, displayed so prominently throughout the campus, is an everyday reminder of where the railroad came from and the importance BNSF predecessors played in the settlement of the West.

For more on the BNSF art collection, check out the railroad’s video below.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @bybillstephens 

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