Reading on the train

On the rare occasions when I go somewhere by train, the minute we set off, I whip out my book and read. Cars, buses, coaches, small boats are a no-no for reading for me – instant headache, but trains and planes are fine.

Edward Hopper is one of my favourite artists.  I love the way he does white light, and I particularly love the stories in his paintings, although some of his women tend to have over-strong features. I stumbled across the first of these two paintings in A Booklover’s Companion from Folio books, and thought I’d share it with you – then I remembered another Hopper painting of a woman reading on a train – so you have two to contemplate below…

The 1965 Hopper painting, Chair Car, sold for a record-breaking $14 million at Christie’s to a private buyer in 2005. It’s a strange-looking train car – so tall! The statuesque woman is totally engrossed in what she’s reading, her position doesn’t look comfortable. Has she turned away from the windows deliberately to avoid the distraction of the landscape passing by, to get better light on the page, or just not to get the sun in her eyes? Do you think she knows the guy on the other side is looking at her? So many questions!

The 1938 painting Compartment C Car is, by contrast, a scene that raises fewer questions, the reader seems relaxed, but is why a young woman travelling alone at night on a (tall) train? Interestingly, this painting is fairly small at 20 x 18 inches, a size which suits the subject.

I remember seeing my first Hopper at the Boston Fine Arts Museum, and was smitten.  On my next visit to the USA we went to MOMO in NYC, and there was the iconic Gas (1940), which you can buy as a giant print in IKEA!  In reality it’s another small painting, but I love its welcoming sinisterness. This was followed by another US vacation – Chicago this time and his most famous work in the Art Institute – Nighthawks – a must for fans of Tom Waits.

Sadly, there are no Hopper works on public display in British galleries, but I was lucky enough to go to the 2004 exhibition at the Tate Modern which was amazing, and only cemented him in my mind as perhaps my favourite artist.

Hope you enjoyed this little arty diversion. Are you a Hopper fan?                    I’d love to hear what you think about the interior life of these paintings?

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Hopper (Basic Art Album) by Rolf G Renner, from the art publisher Taschen, provides a great introduction if you’re interested in exploring more about this artist.

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16 thoughts on “Reading on the train

  1. Don’t know Hopper at all (ignorant about so much art) but love these, the mood of the paintings particularly, the use of muted light is wonderful. I too love reading on trains – have trained myself after years of frustration to be able to read for shortish burts in cars & coaches as long as we’re travelling along a strainght road – like a motorway.

    • Glad you liked the Hopper paintings. I wish I could read on a coach or bus. In a car I’m happy to look out of the window when not driving.

  2. I love Hopper. His paintings always seem to throw up so many questions, and are a little mysterious, and a little dark – I find myself trying to write stories about them, because the people always seem so alone and disconnected, even when they are with others. I always think the trains in these paintings look huge – I assume American trains are different our British ones. Like you, I always read in trains – but on any other form of transport I have to be doped up with travel tablets and I’m still ill, so reading is a total no-no on planes, coaches, buses, cars, boats.

    • Chris, I’ve only once been on a ‘proper’ train in the US between NY and DC and it was similar in size to our British ones, but there are those panoramic ones with swivel seats aren’t there? I read in my book about Hopper that he disdained story paintings, but paused people predominate his to offer a powerful variety of narratives!

  3. I love Hopper as well. I knew the second of these paintings, but not the first, so thanks for the introduction. I’m very envious because reading on any form of transport is a no-go for me; I get really travel sick. All that wasted time.

    • Alex – I didn’t know the first painting either, that’s why it really grabbed me I think. Travel sickness is a real bind isn’t it. I’m lucky that trains, planes and ships (when calm) are OK for me – but the number of times I travel on them is so minimal. Love your blog BTW – have added to my links.

  4. Another Hopper fan here, though I’ve never seen any in the flesh (as it were). I read my way across Canada by train – punctuated by lots of looking out of the window. It was wonderful. It looks to me as if that second picture might be in a couchette carriage – her seat and the one opposite turn into a bed, and that curved section above her swings down to form a top bunk. I loved being in my bottom bunk, with that little window and lamp, and a curtain drawn across to shut out the rest of the carriage. It snowed the first night of my journey, and I sat there in the dark watching the snowy forest slip by, lit up by the passing train. Thank you for reminding me of it.

  5. I can read on any mode of transport, but if I’m travelling by train I’m much more likely to look out of the window and/or think these days than read. Uninterrupted thinking time is very precious to me. I too am a great admirer of Hopper, the British Museum has four etchings by him in its collection. I wonder if there are any of his works I can easily see when I go to MIT in a week’s time?

    • I had a quick look on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts site – it only shows one. I’m sure I saw one of his New England lighthouse paintings some years ago there, but the collections change … Still the MFA is wonderful, (as is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum nearby.

  6. Like you, I was lucky enough to get to see the Hoppers at the Tate exhibition and weren’t they wonderful? I stood in front of Nighthawks not really believing I was seeing it ‘in the flesh’! I’ve seen the second image before but not the first and it really captures the strangeness of Hopper’s work. I love his use of light and shade and his portrayal of people in isolation. Thanks for posting these!

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