Bern Hill Freight Paintings

In addition to glamour trains such as the Super Chief, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder, Bern Hill’s paintings for General Motors included a number of freight trains. In 1951, when his paintings began to appear, only a few were of freights; but by 1954, when the market for passenger locomotives had dramatically declined, almost all were freights.

As was the case for his portraits of passenger trains such as the Rockets, Hill didn’t hesitate to depict freight cars bending themselves to go around corners, as seen in the above picture of a Lehigh Valley freight train. This picture also appears to show three E units–which in the early 50s were used mainly for passenger service–pulling a 17-car freight train. Such pictures led some to complain that Hill cared more about his birds-eye-views than accurate depictions of the trains he was helping to advertise.

Hill’s paintings weren’t always from a bird’s-eye view; this one is more of an ant’s-eye view of the on-coming train.

Lending credence to the notion that General Motors was unhappy with Hill’s dramatic paintings that emphasized scenery and bridges over the trains themselves, later paintings also tended to be more down to earth. I don’t have dates for the Chicago Great Western poster (above) or the Jersey Central poster (below), but I suspect they are later than the Lehigh Valley or Chicago & Eastern Illinois posters as they are a bit more down to earth.

The Chicago & Eastern Illinois painting also appeared on the cover of the April 9, 1951 Railway Age, so it is definitely in the early era of Hill’s locomotive paintings.

Differences in colors between the poster and the Railway Age cover may be more due to differences in the machines that scanned them than to differences between the originals themselves.

This 1953 painting of Atlanta & West Point F-unit locomotives is, like the CGW and Jersey Central paintings, more at ground level, but also like those paintings it still has a dramatic backdrop.

In 1954, however, General Motors changed the layout of the ads it put on the covers of Railway Age so the painting itself occupied only about half the cover instead of the whole thing and is in a landscape (horizontal) rather than portrait (vertical) format.

Most of these 1954 covers are also of GP9s or SD9s. GP stood for “general purpose” and SD for “special duty,” but the real difference was that GP units had four-wheel trucks while SDs had six-wheel trucks. Because they distributed the weight across more axles, SDs could operate on lighter-weight track.

Bern Hill wasn’t the only artist GM used for its Railway Age advertising. Stan Ekman, who designed the American Airlines logo and did numerous covers for the Saturday Evening Post, painted a Great Northern switch engine that appeared on the cover of the June 11, 1956 Railway Age.

Other signatures are hard to decipher. Someone whose name could be R.T. Hansville painted a Burlington E-9 pulling a Zephyr that appeared on the September 27, 1954 Railway Age. A signature that looks like “Kenny” appears on a painting of an Illinois Central passenger train in what appears to be a 1954 cover ad as well as another painting of Union Pacific GP-9s on the June 14, 1954 Railway Age.

There are plenty of others, including numerous GM ads with unsigned paintings. Starting in 1962 and for at least ten years, an artist named Tom Fawell did at least 37 highly dynamic paintings for GM locomotive ads. But it is possible that no commercial artist other than Leslie Ragan did as many paintings of passenger trains and passenger locomotives as Bern Hill.

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