27 DC Phillips

[Approaching a City by Edward Hopper]

The morning after I arrived, Irish dropped me at the end of a Metro line, and I took the train into DC. I had an appointment to see a Hopper at 11 a.m., and Eleven A.M. was the name of one of the paintings I was in DC to see. I was also "approaching a city" (the name of another Hopper in DC) as Hopper so enjoyed--by train. "You know," he said, "when you go by train, everything looks beautiful. But if you stop, it becomes drab."

Hopper's 1946 Approaching a City adorns a back corner of an upstairs room in the museum founder's mansion that now shelters the Phillips Collection near DuPont Circle. The painting's wide-angle view of a line of buildings brooding above a train tunnel is not Hopper's most romantic scene, but it evoked for me my train arrivals in European cities. Hopper put it this way: "There is a certain fear and anxiety, and a great visual interest in the things one sees coming into the city."

Hopper's dealer Frank K.M. Rehn was, according to Jo, "enthusiastic, altho it isn't a picture that will sell readily." Ironically, it was acquired the very next year by this museum's founder, Duncan Phillips, who championed Hopper. Duncan called Hopper: "A new type of American painter and etcher. He depicts American architectural horror…. Hopper defies our preconceptions of the picturesque and unflinchingly accepts the challenge of American subjects which seem almost too far beyond the scope even of the realistic artist's 'alchemy.'"

Despite his praise, Phillips's appreciation of Hopper was often misguided. Phillips claimed that a "portrait of a locomotive" was from "romantic California" when Hopper hadn't yet been there, and he thought Hopper's
Sunday was set in the Midwest, when it was painted in Hoboken, New Jersey. Hopper almost called the painting Hoboken Fa├žade. The irony is that Phillips had bought Sunday back in 1926 (the same year that it was painted).

Sunday portrays a bald-headed fellow chomping a cigar and sitting on a boardwalk in front of vacant storefronts bathed in lime-colored sunlight. The perspective tilts the man forward as if the sidewalk wants to shrug him off, but he seems set. It was not on display during my visit.

Standing in the Phillips, I was literally following in Hopper's footsteps. He and Jo visited here in 1937. Jo's only note was that they liked Renoir's
Luncheon of the Boating Party.

I was visiting early on a weekday, so no one was in the galleries to interview, and I couldn't hang around in front of the painting. I had others to see. So I asked a young museum employee with a ring in each ear and a goatee on his chin if he was an artist. Atop a long neck, his head moved slowly as a snake's as he answered yes, so I asked about DC's art scene.

"Artists here have to live in the ghetto. I'm not kidding. It's the only place they can afford. There aren't a lot of galleries in town; most are right around here."

"Do you think people here are as isolated as in Hopper's paintings?"

"That's what we're about here in DC. We're all isolated. We can afford to be. We're the capitol of the new Holy Roman Empire, so we don't need to deal with anyone else."

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