Railroad Gates (1928) Edward Hopper

St. Louis: A Family Affair

One of the St. Louis families St. Louis Art Museum director Charles Buckley partnered with was the Shapleighs. Warren Shapleigh, President of the Ralston Purina Company, and his wife Jane, an art history major at college, began collecting art in the 1950’s.

An American Collection in St. Louis

As with the Herstlets, the Shapleighs’ focus was on American art of the early twentieth century, Buckley’s area of expertise. Their collection included pictures by artists like Charles Burchfield and the abstract painter Arthur Dove. It also had two Hopper watercolors with railroad motifs.

Nine months before my arrival in St. Louis, both of these pictures were given to the Shapleighs’ daughters. ‘Railroad Gates’ (1928) went to Jan Mackey in St. Louis. ‘Railroad Warning’ (1931) went to Tina Schmid in Boston.

I arrive at Mackey’s house in St. Louis on a cool, overcast day.  A maze of private, gated roads lead there via the St. Louis Country Club. A neighbor is visiting and she makes coffee for us while Mackey, a warm, well-dressed woman wearing discreetly beautiful jewelry, invites me to sit down in the living room to talk about her collection.

Mackey’s story has echoes of Roger Horchow’s initial foray into the art world. Her first art purchase was funded by a check she received in place of a debutante ball. With her husband, she continued to collect art from the early 1970’s. She focused, as her parents did, on Hopper’s contemporaries and continuing to be guided by Buckley.

The Mackey’s own collection includes a copy of the famous Hopper etching, ‘Night Shadows’, along with more abstract pictures by artists like Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove. The last two were important members of photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s pioneering abstract gallery in New York.

Night Shadows (1921) Edward Hopper
Night Shadows (1921)

The abstract pictures blend in seamlessly with Mackey’s living room and its American federal furniture. It is ‘Railroad Gates’, along with four other pictures given to Mackey by her parents recently, including two Burchfields, which is now the intruder. ‘I think it fits in well,’ says Mackey of the Hopper watercolor. ‘But I still feel like I haven’t found the final place for it.’

The Hopper’s current place is in a hallway between the kitchen and the small foyer, next to a large, black and white Burchfield watercolor of a wintry city street. Although she had left for college by the time her parents’ art collecting was in full swing, Mackey says she has vivid memories of this particular Burchfield hanging in her parents’ dining room. She used to stare at the bleakly beautiful scene during family meals and relate to it.

The Fall of Gloucester

The Hopper was painted in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1928. Gloucester, an old fishing town north of Boston, is now decrepit and depressed. Its most recent claims to fame are being the home of cults promoting teenage pregnancy and the ill-fated fishermen from the movie, ‘The Perfect Storm’.

Winslow Homer Gloucester Mackerel Fleet at Sunset 1884
Gloucester Mackerel Fleet at Sunset (1884), Winslow Homer

During Hopper’s time, though, Gloucester was a thriving port and a popular summer retreat for artists. The town became a near-requisite subject for two generations of American artists from the nineteenth century onwards, including most famously Winslow Homer.

Hopper first visited Gloucester in 1910 and spent many summers there and on the nearby Maine coast. It was in Gloucester that he developed the unique style of watercolor which would eventually lead to his popular success as a painter.

A Perfect Fit

Like ‘Bow of Beam Trawler Osprey’, ‘Railroad Gates’ is preoccupied with geometrical figures. The vertical figures of the picture, including chimneys, a church steeple, telegraph poles and the upright black and white striped railroad gate, are lined up across the picture. One telegraph pole, its top unseen, leans slightly to the left. A chimney stack teeters to the right. The upright railroad gate instills a sense of latent action in the painting. It’s a reminder that the gate moves from vertical to horizontal with the passing of the horizontal figure of the train.

On first viewing, the Hopper does stand out from Mackey’s original collection. After taking a second lap around the house and viewing all of the blended Shapleigh and Mackey pictures, though, it slides into place. The neighboring Burchfield, in particular, is a fitting companion. Mackey says her family is not planning on giving their pictures to a museum. In truth, I could not imagine them anywhere but here.

Which Hopper watercolor would you want in your home? Where would you put it?

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