Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tiny Train

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.
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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.

4 comments:

Erik Bongers said...

This post does what was discussed in a previous one: it turns 'the intuitive' into clear facts and observations.
All teachers should make such clear observations.

To me the most dominant reason why 'there's something wrong here...' is the church vs. the train.

There seem to be some other people in the view, if I'm not mistaken.
If that's the case, then they dominate the proportions, and then it's mainly the background that is too big.

I think I would try to fix this by moving the base of the big trees down and reducing the church.
Hopefully that would make the background appear like a hill.

Nevertheless, I like the composition, the rough texture of the paint and mainly the mood of the painting.

Bill Guffey said...

With the people in the mid-ground well below the man in the foreground, would that make the man on higher ground also? Horizon line and all that?

Excellent post. With great points to study.

James Gurney said...

Bill, it seems to me that the far people are standing on a slightly lower plane than the train. That would be OK in normal topography, but this appears to be a floodplain, which would have to be fairly flat.

TomHart said...

This post is so valuable for a couple of reasons:

First, James' technical explanation of the error in size/perspective (THANK YOU JAMES!). I'd like to think I would have eventually noticed the problem, but James' explanation and PROOF that the train is the incorrect size for its placement is truly illuminating.

Secondly, and no less valuable is the fact that we see that an esteemed painter like Inness has feet of clay.

This is great. I'd love to see more corrective analyses of other great artists' work. It serves to give us "perspective" no pun intended...or maybe it was...