16-A Edward Hopper (1882–1967), House by the Railroad, 1925. Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 in. (61 x 73.7 cm.). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously (3.1930).
Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York.
… the utterly naked look of someone / being stared at”
—Edward Hirsch, “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925), ” from Wild Gratitude, 1986
Critics tend to see in Edward Hopper's painting and Edward Hirsch's poem two despairing views of a particular time and place in American history—the tail end of the main industrial movement in the United States—when the traffic of industry aggressively reconfigured the American landscape. Even as that traffic brought work and culture to parts of the country that either welcomed or needed them, it ravished or compelled the abandonment of others. What for some was progress, for others was decline, and what remained after the storm, so to speak, was a truly forsaken structure: Hopper's Victorian house is closed, isolated, enthroned in a seemingly permanent shadow; Hirsch imagines there "someone who is about to be left alone / Again, and can no longer stand it."
Both the painter and the writer, implicitly and explicitly, take on the artist as an additional subject in these works. Hopper does so largely through his interpretation of the scene; Hirsch includes the painter—"the man behind the easel . . . brutal as sunlight"—more explicitly; both men explore the artist's role in making the historical moment meaningful. And perhaps both succeed by offering consolation in the beauty of their forms.
This lesson invites a close reading of Hopper's painting and Hirsch's poem to explore the types of emotion generated by each work in the viewer or reader, and how the painter and poet each achieved these responses.
On the Picturing America website, go to the gallery section and click on the image (16a. You will need to pan over to find it) of House by the Railroad (1925) to get basic biographical and contextual information about Edward Hopper and his painting. A link on the page for educators will take you to the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book with a two-page chapter on Hopper, one page of which will be invaluable to Activity 1 below in its instructions on how to look at the painting and what kinds of questions to ask of it. For more information, you can also follow EDSITEment's Picturing America Website Links.
The Picturing America website can provide you with comparative material on other artworks. You might consider Hopper's realism in tandem with Winslow Homer's The Veteran in a New Field (1865) and Thomas Eakins' John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873). Following leads from the Teachers Resource Book's index, you might also want to look at Walker Evan's photograph of Brooklyn Bridge (1929) and Joseph Stella's painting Brooklyn Bridge (c. 1919-1920), as well as Charles Sheeler's American Landscape (1930) for other depictions of industrialization in America. Sheeler's painting, like Hopper's, looks at the railroad's place in the landscape. The nature and evolution of the American landscape provide the subjects for many of the works on this site, including Albert Bierstadt's dramatic and magnificent image of the frontier in Looking Down from Yosemite Valley, California (1865); Thomas Cole's View from Mount Holyoke, North Hampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836), which looks at the landscape as settlement was altering the wilderness. Romare Beardon's The Dove (1964) and Richard Diebenkorn's Cityscape 1 (1963) pursue the notion of cityscape as landscape.
For some information about the beginning of the industrial revolution in the United States, see the EDSITEment lesson plans "Was There an Industrial Revolution? Americans at Work Before the Civil War" and "Was There an Industrial Revolution? New Workplace, New Technology, New Consumers." A look at the impact of industrialism at the turn of the century can be found in the EDSITEment lesson "Carl Sandburg's 'Chicago': Bringing a Great City Alive." For background on some of the effects of the transcontinental railroad, look at "I Hear the Locomotives: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad." The EDSITEment-reviewed Smithsonian Museum of American History offers a timeline through the "History Explorer" link; you can click on the era you want to look more closely at (in this case, select the green area for the Development of the Industrial US and follow their leads for succinct description of the period.)
Edward Hirsch is a contemporary poet who writes in a range of genres and addresses many themes, making him difficult to classify; he has published free verse and formal odes; and his primary preoccupations include emotional life, history, and politics, and most recently, the "divine." His second collection of poems, Wild Gratitude, in which "Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad (1925)" appeared, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1986. (The poem, published earlier in Poetry Magazine [Volume 140, July 1982], also appears in The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, an anthology collected and introduced by Gail Levin [New York: Universe Publishing, 1995].) Biographical and bibliographical information on Edward Hirsch, as well as samples of his prose and poetry and a recording of him reciting his poem "The Widening Sky," is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets website. More information and more links to Hirsch's work can also be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation website.
Before students read anything about Hopper's painting, ask them simply to look at it for a few minutes and then to describe how the painting makes them feel. To flesh out their responses, let them use Worksheet 1—where they can list pertinent words that come to mind as they examine the painting, describe their emotional responses to the painting, and register their associations (e.g. memories evoked, other paintings, art, literature, or music brought to mind, etc.). Use the Worksheet as the basis for discussion.
Begin a thorough description of the painting with students by using Worksheet 2 to note all they see. Try to keep them focused on the visual evidence, to see the subtlest of physical details. As the worksheet suggests, you can stimulate discussion by asking:
For every observation they have made above, ask "why?" or "with what consequence or result?" Explore the effects of the details to which their descriptions point.
For this activity ask students to consider questions such as those in the "Describe and Analyze" section of the Teaching Activities in the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book for Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad.
Now invite students to write a poem about the painting. In the spirit of true creativity, you may not want to offer more guidance than that.
Next, read Hirsch's "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)." Using Worksheet 3, asks students to make a list of all the subjects they can discern in Hirsch's poem. Once you have given them some time to do so (singly or in pairs), let them share their lists with the class, creating a master list on the board. Presumably a few students will offer some implicit subjects to include with the more evident explicit subjects, but if not, you can coax them there by drawing their attention to some of the more abstract diction: "strange," "ashamed," "relentless" or "horrible," for example, and then phrasing that list as nouns: "shame" and "horror," for example.
Also with the aid of Worksheet 3, ask students to choose a few of the subjects they think either especially important or most evocative of the subjects in Hopper's painting. Then ask them to use the second column of this part of the worksheet to note words or images from the poem that are relevant to those subjects.
Using Worksheet 4, ask students to note similarities and differences in Hirsch's and their own responses to the painting. Let them compare mood and tone and provide examples from both poems. They should also write a list of subjects, both implicit and explicit, in both poems, and write a list of images that stand out for them. Once they have done these worksheets, discuss their content; addressing the strengths and weaknesses of Hirsch's and their own imagery might be especially productive.
Return to Hopper's painting. This would be a good time to turn to the "Interpret" section of the Teaching Activities in the Picturing America Teachers Resource Book for Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad You can use the questions there as a departure for discussion:
3-6 class periods