Travel is a recurring theme in Hopper's art. His early trips to Europe, many journeys through New England, holidays in the South and in Mexico provided motifs for artworks. But, while Hopper made studies and watercolors—as in St. Francis' Towers, Santa Fe—away from home, he found it difficult to show the picturesque. Actively seeking commonplace subjects, he often gave more significance to the journey than the destination.
Hopper's most effective travel pieces are joyless. Places travelers use regularly--train stations, bridges, and hotels—are purged of anything too specific or inviting. Revealing the essentials of a scene, Hopper convinces the viewer to see it truthfully, as if it were for the first time.
Approaching a City depicts an arrested moment on a trip: a wide-angle view of railroad tracks and an underpass that evokes the sensation of the train's deceleration as it moves toward the city. The unseen traveler (and the viewer) is in a curious limbo, neither completely in the city nor outside of it. A massive wall separates the foreground from apartment buildings in the distance, contributing to the sense of isolation. Hopper compels the viewer to focus on the bleak setting and prepare for what lies beyond the tunnel. Using a somber palette—grays, browns, and ochres—Hopper emphasizes the uncertainty of the journey, completely eliminating bright colors that might convey the excitement and energy that one associates with the modern city. Instead, the painting evokes feelings of both anxiety and curiosity. Ultimately, Approaching a City conveys a paradox of contemporary life. The railroad made faraway places accessible to ordinary people, but it also made those places less distinctive. Reducing the scene to basic forms without distinguishing details, Hopper made the view anonymous. It might be any American city on a rail line. Hopper, by asserting the anonymity of the place and obscuring the train's destination, suggests a future that is both predictable and unknown.