Why do the railroad cars in this painting by George Inness (1825-1894) appear to be size of refrigerator cartons?
1. The top of the engine’s smokestack is even with the man’s nose, which makes the top of the boxcars—and our eye level—about four feet above the ground.
2. The train can’t be any lower than the man because we can see the man is crossing a small stream, and a stream is always the lowest part of a meadow.
3. The train seems to be about as far away as the tall yellow tree. If the tree is about 60 feet average height, then each train car, by comparison, would be just a few feet long. (A passenger car on a mid-19th century train would be about 60 feet long, and a boxcar about 40 feet long, link).
4. The church at the far side of the meadow appears to be about 30 feet tall at the top of its nave. Given that the train is about a third of the way between us and the church, that makes the engine about 10 feet long.
If Mr. Inness wanted to show the train in proper scale to the scene, it would have to be tall enough to nearly block the view of the town.
If he wanted to keep the train small for artistic effect, he'd have to do two things: put the man on a hillock at the edge of the valley, rather than on a footbridge, and scale down the nearby trees and the far town.
The point here is that perspective operates all the time, not just with architectural subjects.
The painting is called "Short Cut, Watchung Station, New Jersey," 1883, in the Philadelphia Museum.
Related GJ posts on Eye Level, part 1, part 2, and part 3.