Three long, thin bands of cloud stretch out in soft gray-purple against a luminous sunset: the deep pink and gold sky dominates everything for the land beneath is gently rolling, inclined to flatness with a low horizon line, and filled with intense shadows cast by that penultimate moment of sunset when even grass turns a livid and somber color. Fading light glints on a metal railroad track cleaving its way across the empty landscape. There are no trees or signs of human activity. In this bleak stillness, the only opposition to the wide horizontal lines of railroad track, horizon, and distant cloud is the gaunt, vertical structure of a signal box rearing up, with its top story etched sharp against the hectic sky, its base merging into the shadowed bank of the landscape. Close by the signal box, in the foreground, is a short post lost in the gathering dusk; on the far side of the track, a tall pole cuts the sky with its signal plaques down. The scene is richly mournful, and ominous: that wild sunset is about to lose its brilliance at any second, the light will soon depart and you, the onlooker, will be alone.
This scene could only have been painted by the American artist Edward Hopper. In their ordinariness, the ingredients are peculiar to the industrialized urban world of the twentieth century; but Hopper’s use of them is unique because no other artist of comparable stature has employed them so single-mindedly as the dramatis personae of a painting, without abstract metamorphosis into metaphysical, decorative, or surrealist props. Hopper’s achievement in painting Railroad Sunset (1929) is all the more remarkable for having trapped a sensation as well as a scene familiar to people throughout the Western world. The locale in the painting is American, possibly Maine or Cape Cod, but the atmosphere of desolation created by Hopper as well as the sense of ominousness in the approach of night in a deserted place are part of contemporary experience itself. Hopper was more than a recorder: at his best, he was an inspired stage director who could take a cliché situation from city or country life, almost like a snapshot, and revitalize it by special focus.
Hopper’s tenacious and passionate sobriety as an observer of the American city, the countryside, and those forlorn intermediary vistas of semi-urbanized regions is the subject of a huge new picture book with extended notes on Hopper’s life and work by his friend and scrupulous interpreter, Lloyd Goodrich. Hopper died in 1967, two years after a fine retrospective at the Whitney Museum; part of his large bequest was shown at the Whitney this year and is now circulating among other museums in the US. The third in a series of volumes, similar in format, devoted to American artists (Wyeth and Rockwell have appeared so far), the book succeeds in giving a very…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.