A HOUSE BY THE RAILROAD TRACKS

From the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Museum of Modern Art in New York across town to the Whitney Museum of American Art, we can discover several iconic images of American life, all produced by the same artist:  Edward Hopper.

Their sense of place and history not only documents an era in our national life, but also evokes the feel and texture of those years.  These images have intrigued and inspired a variety of American poets and painters including both Edward Hirsch and Phillip Koch.  They have also become iconic images that stand in for a much larger and more complex sense of our country:  rooftops and storefronts, bridges and lighthouses, and of course railroad tracks and isolation.

For Phillip Koch many of these images are reminders of his own childhood and studies in art school, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana.  Seeing and confronting Hopper’s paintings are one of the most important ways of learning, not only about them, but also about painting in general.

When I asked Phillip Koch about Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” this was his response:

“I’ve loved that painting for years and in March of 2015 made a special trip up to Haverstraw, NY (just north of Hopper’s hometown of Nyack, NY) as I knew the building Hopper had worked from was still standing and little changed from his day. The house is high up on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. There is a railroad track just down the hill a bit from the house, and still farther down the hill a road where Hopper stood and envisioned his painting.”

tracks
Phillip Koch
“Haverstraw”
2015
Vine charcoal on paper
10 1/2” x 14”
Collection of the artist, Baltimore, Maryland

“This is Haverstraw, vine charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14 inches, 2015, that I did from nearly the exact same spot where Hopper stood to do his House by the Railroad.  I didn’t include the railroad tracks though they are still there and in use, just as in Hopper’s day. If you compare Hopper’s oil to my version, you can see Hopper felt free to invent some additional architectural features to make his structure more interesting (realist that he was, he loved to play around with his subjects and add and subtract forms at will.)”[i]

For the poet Edward Hirsch, Hopper’s paintings frame a mid-western sense of isolation:  spatial and psychological conditions.  Hirsch often personifies the typical American storefront, or an old house façade, giving them human expressions:  these are some of the classic human conditions that poets constantly deal with, playing with only light and shadow and words and rhythms in order to intensify and exaggerate a mythical presence.

What follows here, is Hirsch’s articulate and sensitive meditation on Edward Hopper’s great painting, “House by the Railroad” from 1925:

Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad 

“Out here in the exact middle of the day,
This strange, gawky house has the expression
Of someone being stared at, someone holding
His breath underwater, hushed and expectant;

This house is ashamed of itself, ashamed
Of its fantastic mansard rooftop
And its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamed
of its shoulders and large, awkward hands.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

tracks2
Edward Hopper
“House by the Railroad”
1925
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
(Anonymous Gift)
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Now the stranger returns to this place daily
Until the house begins to suspect
That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
And even ashamed. Soon the house starts

To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
The empty white canvas slowly takes on
The expression of someone who is unnerved,
Someone holding his breath underwater.

And then one day the man simply disappears.
He is a last afternoon shadow moving
Across the tracks, making its way
Through the vast, darkening fields.

This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,

The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.”[ii]

 


[i] Koch, Philip; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer; 19 November 2017.

[ii] Hirsch, Edward; “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” Wild Gratitude; Alfred A. Knopf Publishers; New York, New York; 1986; pp. 13-14.

WHISPERS OF EDWARD HOPPER IN THE GALLERIES OF THE IMAGINARY MUSEUM

I first met Joseph Stanton in the Conference Rooms at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in October of 2004 during a series of discussions related to both the fine and liberal arts.[i]  Speaking as both a poet and art historian, Stanton approached Edward Hopper’s work from a critical point of view, while not forgetting the narrative lyricism contained therein.

Stanton’s collection of poems titled “Imaginary Museum” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition.  He has created a museum of sorts that includes several ‘wings’ housing the various collections.  Both, Eastern and Western cultures, as well as references to Pieter Brueghel and Edward Hopper are featured amongst the galleries of this museum.

hopper
Edward Hopper
“Approaching a City”
1946
Oil on canvas
27 1/8” x 36”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Approaching a City                  

“The way into the city is a darkness
that opens to a shadowed underground.
There are thoughts we approach but do not express.

With so much ahead we try to think of less,
knowing how clocks will turn us round and round.
The way into the city is a darkness

that remembers what we cannot confess:
that shadows shape what our lives have found.
A thought we can approach but not express

suggests that the future must be a guess –
a lie we must pass through or go around.
Yet the city’s inclination to darkness

should come as no surprise and no distress.
The light that strikes against wall and ground
is a thought we approach without express

prospects for joy or grief or tenderness,
keeping in mind the sky’s pale-blue surround.
There is no way into the city’s darkness,
which we have approached but not expressed.”[ii]

There are many examples of ekphrastic writing that are inspired by, but not necessarily literal descriptions of works of art.  For example, many works by Agnes Martin have inspired writers over the years, however this is in a very general sense, and often not related to any one specific work.  On the other hand, Edward Hopper’s painting of the “Nighthawks” has been the source for a great deal of writing, very specifically.  So, I recently asked Joseph Stanton about this and about his personal writing process.  Here is his reply:

“To answer your question, I focus very intensely on specific artworks, but I do not force myself to write about them in any particular way. Often I spend many months looking at reproductions of artworks to which I would like to respond without writing much of anything.  Also, because I teach art history, I live with my thoughts about the artworks in multiple ways. My procedure in such a case is to read and/or reread everything I can find about the artworks and the artist . . . . Sometimes I come up with a poem, sometimes I don’t . . . . Most of the research of course does not end up in the poem; sometimes none of it does . . . . The excesses that do not end up in poems or articles are enrichments to my teaching. In my role as an art historian, no amount of information or reflection on artworks is wasted. It is all grist for the mill.”[iii]

hopper1
Edward Hopper
“New York Corner, or Corner Saloon”
1913
Oil on canvas
24” x 29”
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
Stanford, California

New York Corner              

“This saloon faces
a murderous expanse
of intersection.
Let’s drink
to that.”[iv]

Above and below are selections from the Hopper Collection of the Imaginary Museum.  We will be saving the “Night Hawks” and “The House by the Railroad Tracks” amongst others for later installments.  These current examples are indeed a set of whispers, less popular works perhaps, but clearly ones where the voices of both the poet and the painter are coming into focus.

hopper2
Edward Hopper
“Drug Store”
1927
Oil on canvas
29” x 40”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

Drugstore                                 

“A drugstore window
in 1927:
jarred red light and blue
islanded in the silent street –
one war ahead, one war behind.”[v]

hopper3
Edward Hopper
“Rooms for Tourists”
1945
Oil on canvas
30 1/4” x 42 1/8”
Yale University Art gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Rooms for Tourists                   

“Sometimes
all we need to know about
cozy, bright rooms is
that we have been
left outside.”[vi]

hopper4
Edward Hopper
“Cape Cod Evening”
1939
Oil on canvas
30 1/4” x 40 1/4”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Cape Cod Evening                    

“The moment’s center
sees a dog poised in tall grass,
ears tuned to autumn’s
stiff breeze:  he sniffs bitter air
as if it were just weather.”[vii]

hopper5
Edward Hopper
“Solitude”
1944
Oil on canvas
32” x 50”
Private Collection

Solitude                             

“The sadness of horizon
is a matter of perspective,
the point being the vanishing
where lines converge
only because we see them to.

That vision is delusion
saves us from nothing.
Seeing’s myth
conceals a truth:

though there is no point
to vanishing,
we will all vanish anyway.”[viii]

 


[i] The Eighteenth Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, sponsored by the School of Visual Arts in New York, New York.  The topic of Stanton’s paper was “Retrospection on a Gallery of Hopper Poems” and looked especially at Hopper’s paintings as narratives.  20-22 October 2004.

[ii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 93.

[iii] Stanton, Joseph; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail communication with this writer on 27 November 2018.

[iv] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 94.

[v] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 97.

[vi] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 107.

[vii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 109.

[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Imaginary Museum; p. 110.

IN HOTEL LOBBIES

“Edward Hopper’s art is highly provocative and often disturbing. His contemplative figures appear to be alienated from society and to occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication. They never smile or frown, and their attitudes and expressions suggest unapproachableness. These introspective figures convey an inner turmoil that can provide questions about relationships, the roles people play in society, and the meaning of life.”[i]

hopper
Edward Hopper
“Sketch for Hotel Lobby”
1943
Conte crayon and graphite on paper
8 7/16″ x 10 15/16″
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

When studying several of Hopper’s sketches for this painting, it becomes clear that he was really searching, working out the space and placement for the lobby and the people inhabiting that space. Five or six different figures were placed in various positions within the composition, including one, a desk clerk, who is hidden in the background behind a lamp in the office. Figures of both men and women are substituted for each other in order to achieve the balance that he desired.

hardwick
D.W. Hardwick
“Study #2 from the Hotel Lobby”
1976
Graphite on paper
6″ x 8″
Private Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana

For many years of my teaching career, we would visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and draw directly from the objects in their collection. There are several works by Edward Hopper housed there, including “American Landscape,” “New York, New Haven and Hartford” and the “Hotel Lobby” from 1943. Especially important in this learning process is to discover the underlying architecture of any work of art, not just the surface illusions. Two such examples are shown above and below this paragraph. Drawings made on the spot in the museum and showing both space and movement and the tonal juxtapositions that occur in the original. They were completed by Darryl W. Hardwick during the summer session of 1976.

hardwick2
D.W. Hardwick
“Study #1 from the Hotel Lobby”
1976
Graphite on paper
6″ x 8″
Private Collection, Indianapolis, Indiana

The poet Raymond Carver in his collection titled Ultramarine of 1987 took on a similar subject. Not directly written after this painting, the parallels however are so striking that one might do a double take. A quiet, perfectly still scene, with the various characters going about their daily routines. Structured and written to lead us into this particular space. Introspective, with the possibility of great turmoil.

“In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo”

“The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book.
The man in the lobby using a broom.
The boy in the lobby watering plants.
The desk clerk looking at his nails. The woman in the lobby writing a letter.
The old man in the lobby sleeping in his chair.
The fan in the lobby revolving slowly overhead.
Another hot Sunday afternoon.

Suddenly, the girl lays her finger between the pages of her book.
The man leans on his broom and looks.
The boy stops in his tracks.
The desk clerk raises his eyes and stares.
The woman quits writing.
The old man stirs and wakes up.
What is it?

Someone is running up from the harbor.
Someone who has the sun behind him.
Someone who is barechested.
Waving his arms.

It’s clear something terrible has happened.
The man is running straight for the hotel.
His lips are working themselves into a scream.

Everyone in the lobby will recall their terror.
Everyone will remember this moment for the rest of their lives.”[ii]

hopper2
Edward Hopper
“Hotel Lobby”
1943
Oil on canvas
32 1/4″ x 40 3/4″
Williams Ray Adams Memorial Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

[i] Warkel, Harriet G.; Paint to Paper: Edward Hopper’s Hotel Lobby; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2008; p. 11.

[ii] Carver, Raymond; “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo,” Ultramarine: Poems; Random House; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 75-76.