In Railroad Embankment and throughout his career, Edward Hopper painted aspects of America that few other artists addressed. His choice and his earnest and slightly romantic representation of seemingly mundane subject matter in works such as this set him apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to create a new and uniquely American iconography. In Railroad Embankment Hopper masterfully captures the drama he saw in the effects of light on the gently rolling landscape and modest architecture of Cape Cod, and elevates his subject to a commentary on mid-century American life.
Hopper’s varied subject matter, from urban offices, diners and movie theaters to country roads, isolated homes and undulating dunes, was a result of his habitual division of his time between New York and New England almost every year beginning in 1912. New England offered the artist respite from the bustle of the city and a plethora of pictorial elements to explore, often spurring a creative outpouring, which formed an important portion of his oeuvre. “New England provided Hopper with motifs which he would turn into icons of American art.” (C. Little, Edward Hopper’s New England, New York, 1993, p. VI) One of eight watercolors he painted in 1932, Railroad Embankment is a superb example of Hopper’s Cape Cod work and demonstrates his mastery of the watercolor medium and his celebrated ability to create hauntingly beautiful and poignant scenes from his everyday surroundings.
Hopper first visited Cape Cod with his wife, Jo, in 1930, renting a house in South Truro for three summers before building a home and studio there in 1934. The couple began to spend six months there almost every year, and Hopper found an abundance of subject matter in the unassuming homes and buildings that populated the peninsula as well as the sandy dunes and crystalline light that give South Truro its distinct character. Hopper had long been fascinated by the pictorial possibilities of the play of light and shadow on buildings, once writing, “All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.” (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper: Selections for the Hopper Bequest, New York, 1971, p. 8) As demonstrated by the quality and freshness of the present work, the Cape’s distinct architecture and light revitalized the artist and provided new forms and effects to explore. “The simple shapes of these houses were the architectural antithesis of the complicated, ornamented Victorians he had been drawn to in Gloucester, but the appeal was the same: they offered the opportunity to paint the mesmerizing rhythms of sun and shadow generated in the heat of the day and in the long afternoons.” (C. Tryon, “Edward Hopper” in C.E. Foster, ed., Edward Hopper, exhibition catalogue, Milan, Italy, 2009, p. 51)
Railroad Embankment depicts Dauphinée house, originally built by Captain Kelly, which was near the Hoppers’ South Truro home. Jo Hopper noted in the record book she kept of all her husband’s works, “R.R. Embankment. The Dauphinée (Capt. Kelly) house in full sunlight (bright morning) back of R.R. tracks (not shown). Cerulean shutters closed.” (as quoted in G. Levin, The Complete Watercolors of Edward Hopper, p. 256) The house is shuttered as it was for sale in 1932, before being purchased by Henry and Constance Dauphinée, who became friends of the Hoppers. Hopper took this white clapboard as his subject three times, in the 1931 watercolor Captain Kelly’s House (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and in the 1932 oil painting, Dauphinée House (1932, Private collection). Both the earlier watercolor and the oil are dark, brooding depictions of the house within the landscape, set back in the picture plane and separated from the viewer by the horizontal band of train tracks that cuts through the landscape. In contrast, Railroad Embankment is a brighter and more modern approach to the scene in which Hopper takes a lower vantage point and more frontal view of the house. Whereas in Dauphinée House and Captain Kelly’s House the viewer is looking down on the scene, in Railroad Embankment, the perspective is looking up at the house from the far side of the train tracks. In the present work Hopper compresses the pictorial space to create a visually striking study of the play of light and shadow on architectural and natural forms.
Hopper’s mastery of the watercolor medium is evident in the rich, varied washes of Railroad Embankment. The swath of landscape is wonderfully rendered with varying tones of green, yellow, red and tan and creates a barrier to entry, relegating the viewer to the role of voyeur rather than participant in the scene. It is also a strong horizontal element that anchors the composition. The sense of viewer as voyeur defines Hopper’s best works and is further enhanced by the placement of the telephone pole at the left of the composition – another physical boundary. This simple, man-made element also contrasts with the soft, organic forms of the tree and bushes as do the angular forms of the house, creating a symphony of form and color.
As in all of Hopper’s best works, in Railroad Embankment he uses color to create compositional unity. In addition to the dramatic blue shutters, there are several highlights of azure in the tree, bushes and landscape. The red in the distant window at left is echoed in the landscape, particularly at right, as well as in the glimpse of train tracks, and the tan hues of the roof and chimneys are in the foreground and tree. This use of color as well as the dramatic vantage point of Railroad Embankment creates a compact and visually striking image imbued with the sense of distance and detachment that is an important leitmotif of Hopper’s oeuvre. Although close to the picture plane, the house, with its tightly closed shutters despite the gorgeous day, seems unapproachable—a thing to be looked at but not entered—an effect that is heightened by the lack of human presence. The work is permeated by profound silence and stillness as the building sits monumental and isolated. Here Hopper masterfully captures not only an atmosphere of quietude and loneliness, but also the greater human condition of psychological isolation and existential loneliness in modern society.
In Railroad Embankment, Hopper creates a scene that is distinct in its familiarity. Here he depicts an actual building, yet he renders the scene in such an anonymous fashion so as to make it feel foreign, creating the tension and anticipation that are characteristic of his best works. In 1933, the year after he painted Railroad Embankment, Hopper expressed the goal of his art as seeking to capture what he described as "the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature." Two decades later, in an oft-quoted statement, he again emphasized the importance of his realism as an expression of his own, deeper, aesthetic sense. "Great art," he wrote, "is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world." (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, pp. 161, 164)
Hopper’s unique aesthetic, embodied by Railroad Embankment, influenced generations of succeeding artists and its impact continues to be seen today. Lloyd Goodrich wrote of the complexity of Hopper’s art that accounts for its lasting appeal, "His art was based on the ordinary aspects of the contemporary United States, in city, town, and country, seen with uncompromising truthfulness. No artist has painted a more revealing portrait of twentieth-century America. But he was not merely an objective realist. His art was charged with strong personal emotion, with a deep attachment to our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 15)