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Ed Staples burnt in train wreck returning from Cleveland Mus.Show” (Levin, 1995a, 278), a quip that refers to Hopper’s creation of an imaginary character twelve years earlier.A decade earlier, both the artist and the writer had driven through the American continent in the summer and each in their respective media captured the beauty of the American roadside—often from the vantage point of their automobile—in a manner that stands at odds with the stark realism of most photographic and painterly representations of the time.
Americans truly discovered Hopper when the Whitney Museum organized the first major retrospective of his work in February and March 1950.
Over 170 of his paintings were shown, including when the Hopper exhibition was receiving much attention (See in particular Coates, 1950, 73-74).
In spite of its precise depiction of its subject, during the summer of 1940, which he spent, like most summers since 1934, in Truro, Massachusetts, where Hopper and his wife Josephine had acquired a summer house overlooking Cape Cod Bay.
During his first years on Cape Cod, his biographer records, Hopper would go take drives, finding inspiration in his new surroundings and sketching small charcoal drawings and watercolors out of the window of his car (Levin, 1998, 77).
Saving energy, the gas attendant of the Truro station would not light his pumps until it was pitch dark (Levin 1995b, 328)3.
The traffic on the road, and the busybodies who usually hang around a gas station, may have been other impediments to the depiction of that perfectly still painting.
The preparatory sketches for separately focus on the man-made objects and the surrounding environment; it is only in the later studies that the three-pump station and the wilderness are merged to compose the unique setting we find in the completed work The painting of a late twilight atmosphere, the precise moment when the decline of natural light subtly enhances the different sources of artificial light, is not derived from some true-to-life observation but is imagined by Hopper.
Yet this choice derives from practical difficulties rather than artistic intention.
In the years before 1940, the artist struggled to find new subjects.
Although gas stations materialized on every street corner in the 1930s, it is not until that summer of 1940 that Hopper finally applied himself to the task.