Friday’s From the Historical Archive: Leslie Ragan, Artist of the New York Central

Back in February I spent a good majority of a Saturday hanging out at the Research Library at the Danbury Railway Museum. I was interested in seeing what they had in their collection regarding the Harlem Line, especially timetables. I wasn’t intentionally looking for the entire system-wide timetables published by the New York Central, but when I saw them, I really fell in love. These system timetables were really where Central showed off, with some really gorgeous art. It wasn’t later on after researching that I found out that many of these timetables were based off of art previously commissioned for a poster marketing campaign.

New York Central’s poster campaign began in 1925, after experimenting first with calendars. The marketing campaign was planned along with Central’s centennial celebration. The general theme of the campaign was to display the routes of the rail line: the natural landscapes, as well as the cities. A range of commercial artists were commissioned to design posters, one of which was Leslie Ragan. Ragan’s first New York Central poster, a Chicago cityscape, was published in 1930.

Ragan was born in 1897 and grew up in Iowa. From an early age he knew he wanted to be an artist, and often made drawings of buildings and bridges. Ragan was mostly self-taught, although he did attend the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines. He served in the Air Force in World War One, and upon returning studied for a single semester at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the early 1920’s, he went on to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts, also in Chicago. By 1930 he had relocated to New York and had begun painting for the New York Central.

I’ve gathered quite a collection of examples of Ragan’s art for the New York Central. I must admit that I love the way he painted clouds – whether they were clouds in the sky, or steam from a locomotive. His depictions of trains were very streamlined and smooth, accentuating the shape of the upper portion in which a person rides, and hiding the moving parts below. His art certainly has influenced some people today… if you’ve seen the movie poster for The Polar Express, you will note it bears quite a resemblance to the winter poster at the very bottom.


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