Art and Architecture: Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper is a painter of gloomy paintings that don’t make us feel gloomy. Instead, they help us to recognize the loneliness that so often lies, at the heart of sadness. In his Automat women sits alone drinking a cup of coffee It’s dark outside, and judging by her hat and coat, it’s cold.
The room is large, empty and brightly lit, the decor is functional, and she seems slightly self-conscious, and little an afraid. Perhaps, she’s not used to sitting alone in a public space something seems to have gone wrong, and the viewer is invited to invent stories for her of betrayal or loss. She may be trying not let her handshake, as she takes the coffee cup to her lips, It might be eleven at night, on a dark February night, in North America Automat is a picture of sadness, and yet it is not a sad picture.
There can be something enticing, even charming, about anonymous diners. The lack of domesticity, offers a relief, from what can be, the fullest comforts of home. It may be easier to give away sadness here, than in a cozy living room with wallpapers, and framed photos. Home often appears to have betrayed Hoppers characters. Something has happened there, that forces them out into the night, and on to the road.
The 24-hour diner, the train station waiting room, and the motel are all sanctuaries for those, who for sound reasons, have failed to find their place, in a normal world of relationships, or community. Hopper’s ability to portray solitude came from his own familiarity with it. He was born in 1882, in a shipbuilders town, Upper Nyack, New York. He lived a nice, middle-class childhood, as a son of a merchant.
And, yet inside, Hopper often felt awkward, indeed a bit like an outsider. In one early portrait, we see him gazing, almost distrustfully, at the viewer. Hopper longed to be an artist, and yet his parents insisted, he trained a commercial art, to keep afloat financially. He hated it, and to escape, he took several trips to Paris, under the pretense of studying French art. But in truth, he didn’t feel a connection to the salons, he absorbs some of the impressionists but forgot Picasso’s name.
He preferred to be outdoors, watching children playing in the Luxembourg gardens, listening to concerts or traveling up and down the Seine, by boat In 1913 when Hopper was 31, he settled in Greenwich Village, in New York, where he would stay for the rest of his life. This is where he discovered how crowded, and yet isolated, life could be in the city. The population of American cities was skyrocketing, and yet, they were inhabited by passing strangers, who were increasingly alienated from one another.
Hopper would ride the L-train, and look down at, in his own words, dark glimpses of office interiors, that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind. In each room, a separate drama was unfolding, an unnoticed oblivious island, in the sea of people. Although Hopper painted a New York for over a decade, his paintings failed to sell, and he often struggled to find inspiration.
Then in his early-forties, he met a beautiful social painter, named Josephine. Edward and Josephine took excursions to paint by the sea, they went to the movies, they went to the theatre, and eventually, they got married. Hopper was no longer, so alone. But, of course, as most of us discover in our relationships, Hopper’s marriage didn’t permanently end his feelings of isolation, and woe. He still felt lonely at times. He and his wife, couldn’t quite figure out their sex life, and she often seemed to prefer, the company of her cat. Hopper discovered that even when somebody loves us very much.
There is always some essential part of us, that remains alone. It is, this recognition that makes his paintings so compelling, and indeed, by addressing loneliness, the art can at it’s most therapeutic. Consoling us, and reassuring us that –, and sorrow is normal, and that we are neither strange nor shameful, for experiencing them. Sad and lonely art, allows us as viewers, to witness an echo, of our own grieves and disappointments. And therefore, to feel less personally persecuted, and pursued by them.
Hopper’s art helps us to notice, the landscapes of loneliness in our own lives. A side effect, of coming into contact with any great artist, is that we come more aware of the things that the painter would have been receptive to. Nowadays we’ve come too accustomed to what one might call a “Hopperesque”, a quality found, not only in the North American places that Hopper visited but anywhere in the developed world, where there are motels, and service stations, roadside diners, and airports, bus stations, and all night supermarkets.
For example, service stations readily evoke Hopper’s famous “Gas”, painted thirteen years after “Automat”. In this painting, we see a petrol station on its own, in the impending darkness. The isolation is made poignant and enticing. The darkness that spreads like fog from the right of the canvas, contrast with the security of the station. Against the backdrop of Night in the Wild Woods, and the last outpost of humanity, a sense of kinship seems easier to develop, than in daylight in the city.
Hopper loved the introspective mood that traveling often puts us in to. He liked painting the atmosphere inside half-empty train carriages, making their way across the landscape. But we can stand outside our normal selves, and look over our lives in a way that we don’t, in more settled circumstances. We have all known the atmosphere inside Hopper’s car C No. 293 that perhaps we have not recognized it as well, as when Hopper has held the mirror up to it. After Hopper’s marriage, his professional life suddenly improved as well.
He felt more creative, it was the era of the great depression, and yet his paintings began to sell. Critics rated, museums bought his work, and he received awards. Yet despite his success, he remained deeply introverted, and instead of escaping his solitude, he embraced it. For decades, he turned down the awards, rejected the speaking opportunities, and lived simply, out of the public eye.
He died in 1967, and yet his art remains and retains the ability to help us to see, the loneliness in our own lives, from a wiser, and more mature perspective. Oscar Wilde, once remarked that there had been no fog in London until Whistler painted it. There was, of course, lots of fog, it was just that it was harder to notice it’s qualities, without the example of Whistler, did direct our gaze. What was said of Whistler, we may well say of Hopper. That there were far fewer strangely haunting, and consolingly beautiful service stations, and train carriages, motels and diners before Hopper began to paint.