Edward Hopper and Loneliness

The quintessential painter of American loneliness is Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Probably his most famous painting is Nighthawks [1942], that bleak nocturnal view into a corner diner where we see a man’s back, a couple staring straight ahead, and the counter man bending down to some task.  The painting screams loneliness.

But there are a couple of others, separated from Nighthawks by ten years and from each other by twenty years, named Room in New York [1932] and Hotel by the Railroad [1952], that are positively chilling in their analysis of loneliness, and, I think, a peculiarly American loneliness at that, the loneliness of togetherness.

In the first of the last two, we are outside voyeurs looking through a large plate glass window into an apartment.  A man is sitting on the left hunched over in a large easy chair reading a newspaper, and a woman sits idly at a piano on the right plunking away with one finger at some tune – not a happy one, I would imagine.  Though together in this room, the two of them are separated by a table that, in perspective, consists of an oval, itself covered with an oval doily.  Each is preoccupied with his and her activity to the exclusion of the other.  The only visual connection between them is that the reddish color of the chair the man is occupying picks up the red of the dress the woman is wearing.  He looks as though he will be reading his paper for quite a while, but her sitting posture at the piano is casual as if she appears somehow to be expecting that something is going to happen fairly soon and she will have to get up.

Now move ahead twenty years to 1952 and the second painting.  We have what looks like the same couple, but her once black hair is now graying and what is left of his once blondish brown hair has also turned gray.  They are still not communicating – she is now sitting in a (grayish) easy chair reading a book and he is standing at the window, back to the woman, cigarette in hand, staring out at a dreary urban landscape.  He appears to be dressed in the same dark suit, now somewhat frayed with the years, and she is wearing an etiolated version of the bright red thing she had on twenty years ago.

Taking these two paintings of loneliness together, one gets the sense that the man and woman have stayed with each other all these years, and still each has nothing to say to the other.  The only change, aside from the aging, is that the woman is now in the left side of the painting and he is on the right, the view is outward rather than inward as in 1932, and it is day rather than night.

Of course I do not know what Hopper had in mind with these two paintings.  To me they speak of an unbridgeable apartness in the midst of togetherness, an isolation so profound and so permanent that its horror has become banal in the lives of the two protagonists.  They seem to echo Thoreau ‘s words (Walden, 1854) about the “lives of quite desperation” that most people live, and after a while don’t even know that they are living.

These are powerful paintings, even each by itself, but together they make a deep and disturbing comment on one artist’s notion about the impossibility of human relationships.

[Hopper is one of my favorite American painters, and looking at and thinking about his oeuvre is a fascination all in itself.  If you think this artist’s world might interest you too, you could do a lot worse than starting to ‘plumb’ him in the works below (from The Artchive here) – CTRL-CLICK each title.]

1909 Summer Interior                           1914 Road in Maine

1916-19 Blackhead, Monhegan         1923 The Mansard Roof

1925 House by the Railroad                1925-30 Self-Portrait

1926 Sunday                                          1927 Drug Store

1927 Light at Two Lights                      1928 Prospect Street, Gloucester

1929 Chop Suey                                    1929 The Lighthouse at Two Lights

1930 Corn Hill (Truro, Cape Cod)       1930 Early Sunday Morning

1931 Hotel Room                                   1936 Cape Cod Afternoon

1936 The Circle Theatre                       1938 Compartment C, Car 293

1939 Cape Cod Evening                      1939 New York Movie

1940 Gas                                                 1940 Office at Night

1941 The Lee Shore                             1942 Nighthawks

1943 Hotel Lobby                                   1945 Rooms for Tourists

1946 El Palacio                                      1951 Rooms by the Sea

1952 Morning Sun                                1960 Second Story Sunlight

1961 A Woman in the Sun                  1965 Chair Car

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2 Responses to Edward Hopper and Loneliness

  1. Do we know why he painted so many pictures that evoke this idea of loneliness?

  2. bookmarkbuzz says:

    What a visual treat it is to see so many of Hooper’s pictures in one sitting. Some of his houses exude that lonely feeling too. Thank you for the experience.

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