The Paintings of Edward Hopper
Here sits a lonely woman! Surrounded by the dark, she seems lost in thought. Her isolation is so oppressive, even the radiator turns from her and crouches in the corner.
Suppose you could talk to her. What would she say?
“I hate small town life! Life must be better in the city.” Or, “My husband, the bastard, threw me out and I can’t go back.” Hopper’s paintings always tell a story in the frozen moment.
Next, a woman sits on a bed. Behind her lies a naked man face down. If she could talk to you, what would she say?
“He’s my husband for twenty years. But he’s a stranger to me.”
And the man with the woman on the bed? With that book by Plato beside him, what question is he asking? “Why doesn’t love last?”
Today, plenty of divisions fracture society—race, money, religion, geography [the urban and rural divide] and, of course, sex. With just about everything dividing us, ironically, only alienation unites us. Running through Hopper’s body of work is this sense of loneliness, solitude, and alienation.
That sense of alienation is embedded in the North American psyche and culture. Did it come from the fact that new-comers had to explore and dominate a vast and often hostile territory in order to survive and prosper? Did that experience cause or necessitate a strong, individualistic sense, which is also part of the culture? Perhaps those factors contribute to the sense of alienation. Consider what drives us apart. Maybe we will find some answers in his paintings.
Let’s look at some more of Hopper’s paintings. Here’s House by the Railroad .
Remember that children’s Aesop fable about the city and the country mouse? In it, the city mouse lords his fine, sophisticated lifestyle over the country mouse. Anything familiar here—resentment of those elites?
To me, this old Victorian style house looks abandoned out in the middle of nowhere. Has something been passed by? Those strong, horizontal railway tracks sever the landscape and make me think that the city—where the action is—is just down the tracks. An earlier time has been swept away and there is no retrieving it.
So how are you feeling now—a little alienated, lonely and isolated from the old places and ways? Maybe it’s so bad, you are experiencing hireth—an inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what! This is far more than nostalgia, but it is similar to it. Something has been torn from the soul and is irrevocably gone. Only pain remains.
Hireth is a Cornish word with nothing comparable in English. It’s a yearning to return to that which no longer exists or may never have existed. If you have hireth, you are certainly alienated, lonely and even bereft. Look at the painting again and ask yourself if it stirs any longing in you for the countryside or childhood? Not for me, but then I’m an urban kind of person.
Consider those people who have been violently uprooted from home by war and famine? With so much migration, the sense of alienation and hireth is certainly relevant today.
Most of Hopper’s people look lonely and isolated. No wonder! They are alienated from themselves, one another and their surroundings. But why? His paintings may contain some answers. They illustrate the separated states of his people on various levels.
Here’s how they are separated.
1] Separated from themselves:
Hopper has painted so many paintings in which a woman is alone and staring into space or within herself. I love New York Movie, 1939, where the woman looks intently within as if trying to concentrate on a problem and find a solution.
Look at the sketches he prepared for the painting. In those details, he catches the woman’s unfamiliar and difficult task of navigating the within. We see the tension in her shoulders and the tilt of her head. Even her clothing suggests her need for protective covering.
2] Separated from one another:
In Room in New York, 1932, if you drew a line between this man and woman, could there be any more tension? It’s almost as if they are pushed apart. She plays with the piano as if to fill in time. He bends over his paper as if to concentrate and perhaps block her out. What words have or will be spoken?
How many times have we said or done something that is unfathomable to us? He wanted to take her in his arms and tell her he loved her. But instead, he said something so stupid and cruel, he’d never forgive himself. We don’t know what the subconscious is up to and often we aren’t even aware that unconscious forces operate within us.
3] Separated from their surroundings
Hopper paints lots of urban landscapes but often they are devoid of people. When they do appear, they have an odd, even uncomfortable relationship with their surroundings.
Looking at People in the Sun, 1963, I have such an awkward feeling that I’m not sure what to say. Five people sit on lawn chairs on what might be a sidewalk or terrace facing a field and a non-descript row of hills. It seems they are simply enjoying the sun but are dressed in rather oddly formal clothing for the occasion. These people stare into space and have no explanation for their presence. They look packaged up, sealed off and deposited there as if from another planet. How and why did they get there? Questions abound.
In the next painting, Office in a Small City, a man sits alone at a desk in an office encased by very large windows. Hopper’s wife, Jo, described it as “The man in the concrete wall.” How true! He, too, is packaged up and sealed off from his surroundings. With such a terrific view, you’d think he had the world at his feet. But these walls and windows cut him off just as if he were in a jail. An incarcerated man is dehumanized and exposed. It was the only painting Hopper produced in 1953. Perhaps Office in a Small City reflects his psychological state struggling with the creative process.
Separation-Search for Meaning:
Because our circumstances cause such a separated state, we are divorced from meaning in our lives. If we cannot understand ourselves or others, if we feel alienated from our surroundings, how on earth can we possibly add anything up to find meaning? Consequently, we are destined to spend our lives searching to fill that void.
Why do I think that? In the next three paintings, the light is golden and has a special intensity which suggests it contains an important message or meaning. The people are caught and stand staring into the distance. What are they looking at? We do not know, and I suspect neither do they. But we do know they are inextricably drawn to it. He looks as if he is expecting to receive some sort of message. The longer you look at a Hopper painting the more questions you have. The search goes on.
In Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1947, a man rakes in his yard. He has stopped and now looks at something we can’t see in the distance. Given this light, it is either early morning or late afternoon. The intensity of the golden light suggests an announcement is about to be made. Which reminds me!
In Christian art history, you will see many annunciation paintings have been created by such great artists as Da Vinci, Van Eyck, and Raphael. The quality of the light sets those works apart as it bathes religious figures. Although Hopper’s people are entirely ordinary, I see the same quality of light in his work. And that’s why I like to think these people may have seen something that brings special meaning into their lives. Perhaps this is the meaning we’ve been searching for. Some might call it a moment of grace.I came across this sketch prepared by Hopper for Pennsylvania Coal Town and see some interesting differences in the figure. In the sketch, the man seems quite upright yet looking down engaged in his task of raking. In the painting, he appears to be stopped, gazing upward with great attention at something we cannot see. Perhaps his moment came between the sketch and the painting.
Here’s another one. This woman is bathed in the golden light. Her stance suggests rapt attention to something we cannot guess. One might say she is transfixed.In this painting, Cape Cod Morning below, the woman seems to look out her window very eagerly. What is she seeing, hearing or sensing? It is interesting that she may have attained this state of grace while she appears to be entirely alone. Today, we say our society is polarized. Race, money, geography religion and sex tear us apart. It’s easy to lament our problems. The only common ground is the fact that we are all alienated in some way and from something. Consequently, we are all driven to search for unity and meaning.
Is this the common [normal] state for human beings? My answer to that question is—yes, at least some of the time. But when we come together, that is when growth and advancement comes.
Hopper was living and working in tumultuous times between two world wars with an economic depression in between. We, too, live in tumultuous times riven by all the above.
Throughout his work, Hopper has explored and laid out this human state. Yes—we are separated from ourselves, one another and our surroundings. And yes—we are constantly trying to find meaning and purpose in life. Hopper expresses this state beautifully in his work and that is why he is considered an iconic painter today.
We turn to him for knowledge of ourselves and to get our bearings. Painful as it may be, this constant divided human state has a purpose. That purpose is to grow and evolve as human beings. Hopper’s work represents our psychic state and our journey from loneliness, solitude, and alienation to harmony. Viewing his work is like holding up a mirror to ourselves.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the recently released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.
PS: You might be interested in seeing a video about the first novel in The Trilogy of Remembrance, The Drawing Lesson. Alexander Wainwright, the visionary landscape artist of the trilogy, is also a great fan of Edward Hopper.