The quintessential painter of American loneliness is Edward Hopper (1882-1967).
Probably his most famous painting is Nighthawks , 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  and Hotel by the Railroad , 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.]