Skip to main content

Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad”

A look into the past and art. The beauty of the past reflected in the present



Edward Hopper’s Midlife Crisis

1925 was a turning point for Edward Hopper. After returning from his third trip to Europe in 1910, he remained in limbo for a long time. By 1925 he could no longer be considered a young and aspiring artist, being a man around the age of forty. So, most likely, this turning point was a midlife crisis due, among other things, to creative failures.

Hopper arrived from Paris full of hope, began to participate in exhibitions, and joined the struggle that progressive American artists waged to create new national art, more vital, realistic, and dynamic. But something went wrong, and for 15 years, he could sell only one painting (Sailing, 1911).

To survive, Hopper had to again, as at the dawn of his career, take up commercial orders, get a job at the Sherman and Bryan advertising agency, and look for additional income on his own, knocking on the doors of magazine editorial offices in search of orders for illustrations.

But on the other hand, he perfectly mastered the technique of etching. And during these 15 years, he found two key themes for his work, the very themes that would further define all of his art and also play a very significant role in shaping the American cultural space. These are the themes of loneliness in the big city and of departing America. Sometimes he quite organically combined them in one work, as happened in his painting “House by the Railroad,” which later developed a cult following.

Edward Hopper, Sailing, 1911

Edward Hopper, Sailing, 1911

“House by the Railroad” was preceded by a series of watercolors that Hopper completed in 1923. Then he went to Gloucester, a small port town in the state of Maine, where a colony of artists had settled for a long time, attracted by beautiful sea views. Edward, as always, turned out to be original and chose not to paint seascapes, but the skipper houses of the Rocky Neck quarter, built in the neo-Victorian style.

These houses or small villas had complex, often bizarre, architecture. They attracted Hopper with a particularly spectacular contrast of light and shadow generated by a complex pattern of architectural elements. But in addition, the artist saw in them the old America, which did not yet know either the booming industry or the active growth of cities in the early 20th century. It was the image of his childhood, the image of his native Nyack, who once inspired the idyllic landscapes of the artists of the Hudson School.

The public enthusiastically greeted Hopper’s watercolors. Hopper’s paintings caused delight among the public; critics wrote about their “sincerity, vitality and strength” and argued that, at last, the “national image of America” ​​had taken a visible form. And now, after a long break, the artist took up a new painting, this time in oil, as if summing up and fixing what he had already done earlier in graphic technique. And so “House by the Railroad” appeared.

Edward Hopper, House in Italian Quarter, 1923

Edward Hopper, House in Italian Quarter, 1923

In addition to the watercolors of neo-Victorian houses, the painting was also preceded by several engravings depicting houses by the railroad, particularly the engraving “American Landscape,” where Hopper tried to use a compositional technique similar to the composition of “House by the Railroad.”

Edward Hopper, American Landscape, 1920

Edward Hopper, American Landscape, 1920

So, in this painting, we see an old Victorian house with bizarre architecture and a high embankment with railway tracks, which, as it were, serve as a visual barrier between the house and the viewer. This barrier gives the building a sense of inaccessibility and isolation, which is enhanced by the lack of movement in the scene and the desert landscape surrounding it.

Obviously, this house, or even the House, since he is the main character of the picture, was built earlier than the railway since its architecture resembles that of the pre-industrial era. The house seems somehow lost and out of place here, as if it is the only one left from some already disappeared ghost town, forgotten by history.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Probably, its turret and veranda were originally intended for leisurely contemplation of nature, but now not a single tree grows around the building; only the railway passes right in front of it. The railroad, as it were, cuts the picture horizontally, hiding the base of the house from the viewer’s view.

At the same time, the railway no longer gives the impression of a shiny new high-speed highway leading to a happy future. It, like the house, seems almost ghostly. Its once-bright silver steel rails are rusted and probably haven’t run a train in years. Once this highway destroyed the patriarchal-idyllic way of life of the inhabitants of the old mansion, but at some point, it turned out to be abandoned and useless.

The brownish-rusty railroad tracks contrast with the house’s pale bluish-gray color. At the same time, its reddish pipes echo the color of the tracks, creating a kind of compositional harmony.

The blind windows of the house enhance the melancholy mood of the picture. Even though some of them are open, there is no human presence behind them. The glass reflects light, but none of them allows the viewer to see inside.

Most of the canvas is occupied by the sky, painted in a pale, featureless whitish-gray color, so it is impossible to even determine what time of year it is. The shadows indicate that the sun is already quite high, but there is a little blue in the sky and no clouds. This, according to the artist’s intention, should mean complete emptiness both in heaven and on earth.

The central theme of Hopper’s painting is the alienation and isolation of modern life, which, according to the artist, is characteristic of America in the 1920s. He clearly and unambiguously contrasts the railroad tracks as symbols of modern life, while the Victorian house is a relic of the past. But at the same time, the rails are already rusty and lead to nowhere, and can symbolize the idea that the development of modern civilization ultimately leads humanity to death.

Hopper, when he was asked about the philosophical background of his painting, modestly stated that there was nothing particularly expressive and thoughtful in it and that he simply painted a landscape from life that he liked. Nevertheless, until now, a look at “House by the Railroad” evokes many feelings and gives rise to many subjective associations.

The static nature of the composition is usually interpreted as depicting loneliness, sadness, and separation from the world. Railroad tracks, on which no train passes, only increase the feeling of melancholy.

Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock

As happened with many of Hoppe’s other artworks, they gave impetus to the imagination of other creative personalities, and as a result, “House by the Railroad” appeared in several films, the most significant of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The master of suspense and thriller made this house the habitat of the maniac killer Norman Bates, apparently feeling not only melancholy but also something sinister in Hopper’s painting.

“House by the Railroad” was shown in the exhibition Paintings by nineteen living American artists. It was the first exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art in New York devoted exclusively to American art. In 1930, the collector and philanthropist Stephen Clarke, heir to the Singer sewing machine company, purchased the painting and donated it to the museum’s collection.

In 1926, Edward Hopper created a watercolor Haunted House, which marked the beginning of a whole series of his houses, where “something” lived in. And later gave critics a reason to endow many of his works with the epithet “inhabited by ghosts”’

Edward Hopper, Haunted House, 1926

Edward Hopper, Haunted House, 1926


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles