This is the third and final article about the art at the Whitney Museum of American Art that caught our attention during a visit in early July. The first two articles were “Seamen in The Whitney” and “A ‘Walk’ in The Whitney”. Please, give them a read. Thanks.
“If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” —Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
The splashy colors of sunset create the backdrop for the 1929 painting, Railroad Sunset. The railroad’s signal tower, stark and dark, is silhouetted against anonymous rolling hills. This oil on canvas was created after Hopper and his wife Josephine, known as Jo, traveled from New York to Charleston, SC, as well as to Massachusetts and Maine by train. Following their 1924 marriage, the newly weds embarked on their first transcontinental train trip, traveling to Colorado and New Mexico. Trains were a childhood fascination that stayed with Mr. Hopper throughout his life.
Mr. Hopper painted the scene after he had returned to his Washington Square studio. This was his preferred way to work. His images are not an exact record of a specific sight; instead they are but his memories combined with imaginary details. Mr. Hopper presents here a lonely landscape, not unlike many of his paintings; the railroad tracks slice through the scenery, and the plane of the picture. The scene is a passenger’s view from the window of a passing train. Railroad Sunset is one of more than 3,000 of Mr. Hopper’s works that Josephine donated to the Whitney. This is the largest collection of Mr. Hopper’s works held by one museum.
“No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.” —Edward Hopper
From clock on the wall, the most interesting detail in the window, the painting takes its title, Seven A.M. We know at what time of day the scene is set, but little else. The store has yet to open for business; perhaps it never will. It seems to have been abandoned. There are a few unimportant items in the window: three dark-colored bottles plus two prints or photographs on hard backing maybe used for decoration. The empty shelves and the back of a cash register are visible through the glass. What is, or was, sold here?
The questions that are raised by all of Mr. Hopper’s paintings are what make them very intriguing. Since I was a child I have found Mr. Hopper’s paintings mesmerizing; they have a haunting quality. His wife wondered about the storefront in Seven A.M., and the sort of business that was conducted there. She guessed that the store was a “blind pig,” slang for a speakeasy. Because the painting is dated 1948, it would have been a long time since that sort of business was conducted there; Prohibition ended in December of 1933.
“I am fond of Early Sunday Morning too; but it wasn’t necessarily Sunday. That word was tacked on by someone else.” —Edward Hopper, that ‘someone else’ was usually his wife Jo, who gave many of Hopper’s paintings their titles. Sunday was not part of the original title.
Painted in 1930, Early Sunday Morning could be seen as Mr. Hopper’s comment on the Great Depression. The Great Depression saw industries such as steel suffer; but small, service businesses, including those that sold shoes, clothes, food, drugs, and gas, and would have occupied the type of storefronts seen in Early Sunday Morning, remained afloat, and even prospered.
According to Mr. Hopper, this oil on canvas “was almost a literal translation of Seventh Avenue.” This seems doubtful. Because Seventh Avenue travels north-south the shadows cast by the barber shop pole and the fire hydrant could not have been made early in the day, whatever day it was. The work seems less a specific picture of a New York City street and more an impression of Any Town, USA.
Originally Mr. Hopper included the figure of a person in one of the second floor windows; but he painted over it, deciding it was not needed to tell that story he wanted to tell. The low-rise buildings, housing shops that offer everyday goods and services dovetailed well with Hopper’s Progressive political outlook on America. There is trouble lurking in the shadows, however. Take note of the large patch of dark brown paint in the upper-right hand corner. Could this represent the painter’s belief that oppressive, 20th-century corporate forces were about to overtake the simple 19th-century ideal? The local, small-town, store owner, symbol of the individual, would be soon engaged in a David vs. Goliath confrontation.
Discover the townhouse that once housed the studio where Edward Hopper created these and other works of art over a 50-year period when you are part of our Five Squares and a Circle Tour.