Cassandre and Travel Posters
By Land and By Sea

The history of the luxurious trains that once traveled over the European continent is difficult to find. One can only imagine that the history of the “sleepers” or wagon-lits was a short one. Such elegant trains, capable of taking long journeys, days and nights, fed the passengers by day and laid out their beds at night. These opulent trips were for the wealthy and for those with ample amounts of leisure time and these trains usually traveled between a glamorous destination to an exotic place of equal fame. But those days, which began after the Great War, ended with the beginning of the Second World War–barely two decades during which legends were born. The famous Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, told the story of British passengers on a trek to the “mysterious east,” between the wars. These aristocrats were disturbed by a murder in the night. The famous detective Hercule Poiret, a passenger, of course, solves the mystery but ends his revelations with frustration–all the passengers were guilty and he was unable to bring them to justice. This book has been made into a number of films, one in 2017, and the viewer will notice that Anthony Lambert was correct to remark in his book on travel, The 50 Greatest Train Journeys of the World, that, after the Great War, the luxury trains were revived with considerable “less ostentatious.” Before the War, he wrote, “..the train for the Trans-Siberian International Express was the sensation of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900. Each carriage for just eight people was in a different style–Louis XVI, Greek, French Empire, Chinese–and each had a music room with a full-sized piano, a library with books in four languages, a hairdressing salon finished in white sycamore, a gym with weights, exercise bicycle and rowing machine, a chapel car and a fully equipped darkroom. By 1914 CIWL had 32 luxury trains in service, but most ceased operation during the First World War, to be revived afterwards in usually less ostentatious form.”

While Poiret and his trainload of murderers sped towards the “Orient” in comfort if not splendor, this journey–aside from the murder–was still quite an elegant and expensive affair. Today, such travel no longer exists, we no longer take the time to indulge in travel; we travel to reach a prescribed destination and prefer to skip everything in between. In his book, Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the SleeperAndrew Martin looked back on that fleeting time, now replaced by cheap short airplane flights, with nostalgia. He wrote of an equally famous train. There was a reason, he noted, why the “Orient Express” went by an English name. “..if Britain has stood apart from the network of European sleepers its upper classes were once its main customers. This was because Britain was the richest nation. In the late nineteenth century, most of the passengers on the premier train de luxe referred to ‘the Orient Express’ rather than the ‘Express d’Orient’ and in 1891 the Anglicised version became the official name.” Martin continued, discussing the transplant of the American Pullman service to the Continent. “In 1903, Georges Nagelmacker’s son, René, married the daughter of a British businessman called Davison Dalziel..Dalziel then joined the W-L (wagons-lits) board. Three years later, Dalziel purchased the British subsidiary of the American Pullman company. In 1925 he became chairman of Wagons-Lits and granted it the right to use the Pullman name..” In  Lambert’s Railway MiscellanyAnthony Lambert described the blandishments of the Orient Express to its fin-de-siècle customers.

Its most famous train was the Orient Express, which first ran between the Gard de Strasbourg (now the Gard de l’Est) in Paris and Constantinople on 4 October 1883, cutting the journey time betweeen them by 30 hours. The carriages were paneled in teak, walnut, and mahogany and decorated with Gobelins tapestries. Passengers sat on leather seats, slept in silk sheets, drank out of crystal and were served by waiters in powdered wigs, tail coats, breeches, and silk stockings. The wigs were abandoned when a passenger complained of powder in his soup. The train became associated with diplomats, couriers with diplomatic bags, spies, crooks, and courtesans. The ambiance of the famed continental express like the Orient Express was thought so redolent of illicit sex that a celebrated brothel near Parc Monceau in Paris re-created the decor and sounds of a Wagons-Lits sleeping-car.

These night trains were called “blue trains” after the famous night train from Paris to Nice. Andrew Martin wrote of this famous journey in The Guardian and in February of 217 said,

In the past 18 months, I have been exploring the remnants of what might be called the first, and most picturesque, form of European integration. I refer to the network of luxurious sleeper trains run from the 1880s to the 1970s by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The best known of these was the Orient Express. On this, and any Wagons-Lits train, sleeping-car conductors had to speak at least three languages, and all notices were written in French, German, Italian and English. Chicest of all was the Blue Train. It ran from the Gare de Lyon to Ventimiglia or Sanremo in Italy, but Nice was the principal destination.” As he pointed out in his book, the wagons-lits were Pullmans but not sleepers..They never graduated to complete dark blueness, but were–with some exceptions–painted blue below the waist and cream above. These cars were used on such day trains as L’Oiseau Bleu..the Flèche d’Or..the Sunshine Pullman Express or the Étoile du Nord..” that traveled between Paris and Amsterdam from 1927. As exciting as the evocative names of these trains were the posters by Cassandre. These iconic posters, the Pullman series, was the visual symbols of luxury travel summoning up the mysteries of going to sleep on a swaying train only to awaken at a new destination.

Steven Ricci wrote in Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922–1943 that in the 1929 Italian silent film, Rails (Rotaie), the leading characters, a young man and a young woman gaze longingly at a Cassandre poster but they are too poor to escape their impoverished condition. Then, in a narrative twist, they find money and use this bit of luck to board a train, without knowing its destination, and ride to a better life. Of course, it is worth it to use the found money to purchase tickets for “a first-class sleeping compartment.” Even today, there is something magical about the term “night train,” which in France were blue. The famous series of travel posters of the 1920s marked the shift of Cassandre away from ambers to the blues, a color that, when related to these new trains, spelled excitement and speed. Therefore these colors, black and blue and stripes of fast white, became the building blocks for his posters for transportation—trains, ships, and airplanes—in an age of luxury travel for the demanding rich. These famous posters, such as that for the French ocean liner Normandie, brought him lasting recognition, but Cassandre started with a series of posters for trains almost a decade earlier. In his 1927 poster Étoile de Nord, an advertisement not just for the fast train to Amsterdam or Brussels but also for the luxury of the Pullman car—an American invention—where one can retire and sleep after enjoying an elegant lunch or dinner. Through the plunging diagonal lines, the eye is led to speed quickly above the necessary informative words to the silver tracks racing across a black rail bed towards a blue destination, marked by a white star.

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel poster

 Cassandre makes us believe that it is as though one has leaped forward, transported by the sheer force of the relentless rails. The Nord Express poster of 1925, like the poster for furniture, was based upon futurist lines of force with the strong diagonals of an imposing speeding black train heading towards a vanishing point were guided by the wires overhead. The dark train to Berlin and to destinations beyond is black and sleek, with darts of white intensifying opaque engine reduced to streaks of speed. For Cassandre, black would become the color of the unnatural and the mechanized, punctuated against his signs for nature itself, the sky or the sea which are blue.  The viewer was instantly placed in the path of the ship or on standing on the platform as the train rushed by. Those who viewed these posters were put on the outside, positioned in a deliberate position of wanting to travel, longing to fly away.

In writing of this poster, Beverley Cole and Richard Durack noted, that until this time, the locomotive had not been considered an aesthetic object. Even the Futurists failed to see its design potential, but Cassandre understood “a new attitude to poster design” and what it “should do.. He aimed to communicate, clearly and forcefully, a message about his client’s product rather than advance his own personal style.” With the “product” in mind–that is the train itself, symbolized, interestingly enough, not by the luxury of sleeping in a splendid compartment, by the powerful locomotive. As the authors of  Railway Posters 1923-1947: From the Collection of the National Railway Museum, they wrote “Gradually, however, the power, beauty, and precision of the locomotive began to be appreciated, and the poster emphasis changed from the places a train served to the train itself. The train became a symbol of movement and power aimed at stimulating an enjoyment of travel for its own sake. The text is included in the design to add to its impact.”

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel posterWhile the luxury trains crisscrossed the European continent, huge ocean liners plowed the seas. At first, these liners were merely large steam-powered ships built to deliver mail and to connect the far-flung corners of the various empires. By the turn of the century, the British had developed a specialty of ferrying passengers between Europe and America, dividing their massive liners among the classes. Migrants poured out of the poorer European nations, particularly in eastern Europe, and landed, via, third class, at Ellis Island. The names of some of these ships were legendary: the ill-fated Titanic and the tragic Lusitania. The great shipping corporations that launched these liners, White Star and Cunard had to pause in these leisurely and sometimes dangerous voyages when the Great War and its submarines made ocean travel for military purposes only. For example, the first version of the famous ship of the Holland America Line, the Statendam was being constructed in Belfast, when the War broke out and construction was halted. The ship was confiscated–requisitioned–by the British who renamed it as the Justicia. The Justicia was passed from the Cunard line to the White Star line which transformed the would-be liner into a troop ship. Although it was painted with a dazzle design, the Justicia was torpedoed in 1918 by a German U-boat. Miraculously, the ship stayed afloat after two torpedoes, but it was stalked by the U-boat which delivered two more torpedoes. Still underway and attempting to escape, but finally, after two more torpedoes, the Justicia rolled over and sank. According to the Great Ocean Liners,”After only about a year of service and having never carried a single paying passenger, the Justicia was gone. She was yet another loss in the terrible carnage known as World War I. Today, the Justicia remains where she once went down, 28 miles north-west off Malin Head. The wreck, which lies in waters 68 metres deep, is in quite good condition and is sometimes visited by sport divers.”

The Nederlandsch-Amerikannasche Stoomvaart Maatschappij or the Holland American Line was founded in 1873 and has been one of the longest-serving ship owners in the world–meaning it has been in continuous service for one hundred fifty years. We recognize it today as the Carnival Cruise ships but the company began by sailing between Rotterdam and New York. One of the policies of the corporation seems to have been to have few names which were used over and over. The second Statendam was launched in 1929 just over a decade after the first Statendam had been torpedoed six times before dying heroically. According to Gare Maritime, which named the ship–rightly as it turns out–“unlucky,” “The new Statendam was to be slightly smaller than the lost vessel, at 29,511 tons. They were visually similar, but with her cruiser stern and shortened forward superstructure, the 1921 liner could easily be told at a glance from the earlier ship..When the 697-foot vessel made her maiden crossing in April 1929, after a delay of at least 14 years, she represented the last flourish of Edwardian elegance on the North Atlantic run, with her interiors being entirely pre-war and, in the era of the Bremen and Ile de France, a bit anachronistic. The original direct-drive turbines, with which she had been designed, had been replaced by gear turbines and resulted in what was referred to as “the most efficient power plant afloat,” so in that regard, at least, the Statendam was as up to date as H.A.L. could make her. In fact, the power plant aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was an enlarged version of that on the Statendam. The Statendam carried 1,644 passengers in four classes (First, Second, Tourist and Third) and proved to be popular as both a liner and a cruise vessel, but her service life was to be a short one. Laid up at Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in December 1939, she was caught in the crossfire between Dutch forces and the Nazis in May, 1940, and burned out after being struck by several bombs. She was scrapped in August of that year.”

Second Class Smoking Longue on the Statendam

Cassandre, who was very popular in Holland, illustrated the ill-fated ship in its brief glory days. The title was unexpectedly long: For Real Comfort New Statendam Spring 1929/ Holland-America Line, 1928 and the poster itself was a return to the familiar ambers of the past. The extensive and official website for Cassandre discussed this poster at some length: “One of Cassandre’s many posters for streamers lines, the Statendam design of 1928 brings us back to the theme of ocean travel-a theme the artist delighted in, constantly renewing himself, constantly varying not only his point of view and angle but also his style, from the almost diagrammatic handling of SAGA to the objective realism of Normandie. The comparison between SAGA, with its planes treated as flat surfaces, and Statendam, where the close-up technique is used to give concrete reality to the picturesque, is especially revealing. Cassandre’s determination to “stick to the wall” is evident in the vastly simplified modelling of the funnels and ventilation cowl (their designs is so manifestly simplified that it avoids the pitfall of trompe l’oeil) and in the rhythmical treatment of the smoke in successive waves ; it is also apparent in the spare lines of the ringing. This poster is a prime example of Cassandre’s attention to tonal values. The color scheme, which is limited to blacks, grays, sepias, and ochres, enhance the plasticity of the image and brings a wonderfully sober equilibrium to the composition. The Statendam design is clearly a refinement of an earlier design for US Lines which places more emphasis on color and three-dimensionality.”

By 1932, the debts to Cubism, especially to Fernand Léger, as seen in his 1929 poster for the Dutch liner, Statendam, were digested, with nods to Surrealism—the color gradations–were played down. The strong contour lines carved out not just shapes but were used to demarcate a powerful negative space that enhanced the rhythm of movement and speed, thrusting through the flat space of the poster for the Normandie. This beautiful ship would suffer a fate similar to that of the Statendam.


Born at a bad time, the Normandie was the last of the best. And the most famous poster designed by Cassandre was for this ill-fated and famed ocean liner. For elegance in travel, nothing matched the French ocean liners of the 1920s and 1930s. Until the Second World War halted this last great age of ocean travel, the Normandie was the queen of all the ships at sea. One hundred years later, the 1935 poster for the Normandie, now a modern icon, is often identified with the style of the 1920s. In the 1935 masterpiece poster for the Normandie, the sky is always blue and the sea is always green and the (mechanized) black prow cuts through the (natural) waves, leading a flock of white gulls, as it sets world speed records. The artist foregrounded the modern technology on the front of the ship, dramatizing the power and speed of its huge engines while allowing the passenger cabins to flare out at the edges. Heralded by the French flag, the ship is tipped with streaks of red, acting as explanation points.

Built optimistically for the remaining rich in 1935, the Normandie defined the Depression, but the luxury liner sailed four years only and managed only sixty-one and a half voyages. The “half” voyage ended when the liner docked permanently in the New York harbor in 1939, halted by the guns of yet another war. Its tragic fate seemed to have been preordained. As  James Hinton wrote for The New York History Blog, “Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the French crew were removed from Normandie. France was technically a German ally under the Vichy government, and as such the U.S. exercised the right to seize the ship as belonging to an enemy belligerent. The ship would be renamed the USS Lafayette, in honor of the French General who had helped make U.S. independence possible during the revolution. The U.S. Navy took possession of the vessel and began her conversion as a troop transport.” Unfortunately, the conversion, as Hinton recounts, was complex, and the work done on the ship proved to be careless with terrible consequences.

Tragically, this haste set up the conditions for a disaster. Work spaces were not properly cleaned or prepared for lack of time to do it, and unsafe conditions became the norm. At 2:30 PM on the 9th, a welder in the first class lounge was performing work next to life preservers that should have been moved ahead of time. The work would ignite these life saving devices. The ship’s modern firefighting system should have prevented the tragedy, but it had been disabled during the conversion and was unavailable to be brought to bear. The New York Fire Department responded within 15 minutes, but were horrified to learn the French fittings on the Normandie/Lafayette were not compatible with their hoses. Less than an hour after the fire broke out, the ship was a raging inferno..The loss of the Normandie alongside of New York’s pier 88 would in many ways mark the end of an era. While ocean liners would remain the principle means to cross the Atlantic until commercial jet liners became available, few liners would be constructed in the post war period. None of these ships would approach either the speed or size of the Normandie.

So ended the era of travel for the sake of traveling. So ended the idea of taking journeys that were, in and of themselves, memorable experiences. Like a dim memory of a lost past, cruise ships take passengers from one site to another, entertaining them non-stop between countless feedings, with no notion of simply enjoying being on a ship at sea. An era has come and gone,  after a brief interlude, flaming out in wartime. Like French culture itself, Cassandre also paused in his advertising career and waited out the war. The culture was changing, the Depression gripped France in the 1930s, the age of Art Déco seemed hopelessly decadent and out of reach. Cassandre had to wait and see what the second half of the century would bring. The designer would be written about in a monograph by his long-time friend, designer Maximillian Vox, as “a thinker and an engineer, a lover of nature and a reader of books; such he was then, such he is now. A Puritan in our midst, a worshipper of all things beautiful.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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