No one has managed to capture the melancholic romance of city life quite like Edward Hopper. Seen through an almost cinematic lense, Hopper efficiently encapsulates city living and perfectly expresses the endless possibilities of city life, alongside a sense of a detached, disconnected and lonely existence. Characterized by a noirish style befitting of Humphrey Bogart, Hopper spent many lonely years as a struggling artist and reluctant illustrator before finding fame and marrying in 1924. This struggle may have given his deserted cityscapes and isolated figures the sense of relatable pathos, as he draws the viewer into the potential alienation of modern life.
“Hopper’s paintings capture the quotidian loneliness that is a product of the modern age: his subjects are often represented drinking alone, sitting at the window of an apartment on a hot night, walking home on an abandoned street or otherwise generally emotionally and physically detached from other humans.
During his lifetime there were significant changes to urban life, and artists captured this in different ways. Hopper depicted a stillness in his subjects. As the cities grew around him, becoming more vibrant and lively, and the scale of architecture to mankind tipped dramatically, Hopper focused on the individual. As a viewer of his work, we are often voyeurs, peering into a private moment that Hopper isolated, forcing us to confront a feeling of alienation with which many may empathize.”
Todd Weyman, director of prints and drawings at Swann Auction Galleries
Hopper’s people are lost within themselves even when they are in the presence of others, introspectively navel-gazing while the buzz of a social life happens around them. Hopper is one of America’s most celebrated painters of the solitary realities of 20th century life, and his work has been given an added weight thanks to the pandemic.
Eleven AM (1926)
The emerging theme of solitude in Hopper’s paintings takes shape in Eleven AM, as a woman peers expectantly from a room, potentially awaiting a visitor.
In contrast to the majority of his other paintings, the subject is entirely naked, bar her shoes and her hair that covers her face to provide a modicum of privacy, breaking from the usual formal attire of Hopper’s subjects. There’s a sense of expectation in the air though, as the woman’s gaze is fixed on the open window and she’s bathed in a hopeful, bright light, which sits in contrast against the dark and somber tones of the rest of the room, exaggerating and amplifying her solitude.
Surrounded by the emptiness of the night behind her with only a cup of coffee for company, a solitary woman’s focus doesn’t stray from her drink, as if it’s the only thing in the world.
The element of voyeurism, that would become a symbol of Hopper’s paintings, shines through. It could be imagined that the viewer has turned around from their table to glance at the lone woman, while her bright white leg showcases Hopper’s mastery of shadow and duality of tone; mixing solitude and aloneness with a hint of sexual identity.
The painting was first displayed (ironically, considering the solitude of the sitter) on Valentine’s Day 1927 at the opening of Hopper’s second solo show. Hopper’s wife, Josephine Verstille Hopper had modelled for Automat, and it sold for an enviable $1,200 in 1927 and is today owned by the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa.
“[Hopper] is the father of a whole school of art that takes as its subject matter threshold spaces, buildings that lie outside homes and offices, places of transit where we are aware of a particular kind of alienated poetry.”
Alain de Botton, philosopher.
Hotel Room (1931)
At some point, everyone has sat contemplatively on their bed. It could be you, but the pensiveness and sense of being alone hits home in this powerful and emotive painting.
Framed by the vertical lines of the room and the diagonal of the bed, the woman’s isolation is exaggerated by the room’s bright light as she stares at a yellow piece of paper, leading the viewer once again to decipher the depths of her despair and isolation. Hotel Room was the first of several paintings that Hopper set in hotel rooms and lobbies, showcasing the isolating experience of life away from home.
New York Movie (1939)
A clinical portrait of detachment, New York Movie encapsulates that feeling of isolation and loneliness, even in the busiest and most bustling rooms, calling to mind the detached expression behind A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) by Edouard Manet, who shared Hopper’s interest in scenes of urban life.
In the background a movie plays Hollywood ideals casts a blanket of light over the audience. Meanwhile the subject, presumably an usherette, is lost in her own thoughts, head down and pensive with her hand to her mouth. While the hollow projection of life on screen satisfies the audience, the reality and repetition of life appears to be a heavy burden for her.
Again, Hopper’s wife posed for the painting, this time standing under a lamp in the hall of their apartment. The Palace, Globe, Republic, and Strand movie theatres all influencing Hopper’s overall interior design.
Not only is Nighthawks Hopper’s most recognizable work, but also one of the most recognizable paintings in American art. It features four anonymous and reticent “night owls” that appear as detached from the viewer as they are from one another. Hopper was reticent to admit that all his paintings contained symbols of human isolation, but acknowledged that in Nighthawks “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
He began the painting in 1924 and notes by his wife suggest that the expressive title might be a reference to the man’s nose at the bar. “Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish.”
Sensationally capturing the illuminating effect of street lighting at night, Nighthawks is a masterclass in color tones and shades that bathe the street and bar in captivating light, while also providing a comment on American life. Hopper’s biographer, Gail Levin, said that Hopper was potentially inspired by Café Terrace at Night by Vincent van Gogh, or Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, The Killers. It was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000 within months of completion and remains there today.
Hotel Window (1955)
“It’s nothing accurate at all, just an improvisation of things I’ve seen. It’s no particular hotel lobby, but many times I’ve walked through the Thirties from Broadway to Fifth Avenue and there are a lot of cheesy hotels there. That probably suggested it. Lonely? Yes, I guess it’s lonelier than I planned it really”
Edward Hopper, about Hotel Window
Following on from Hotel Room (1931), Hotel Window continues the evocative exploration of isolation in American urban life. A well-dressed older woman stares from an anonymous hotel lobby window in a room that is sparsely decorated and appears to mirror her isolation. Hotel Window sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $26,896,000 – at the time a record for a Hopper painting – before being surpassed by Chop Suey, which sold for $91,875,000, 12 years later.
Chair Car (1965)
Hopper’s penultimate masterpiece presents many of the themes that characterized his career, and confirms the idea that he painted solemn pictures that don’t necessarily make the viewer feel sad, thanks to his dreamlike lighting and use of color, bringing to mind the light featured 35 years earlier in Early Sunday Morning (1930).
Engrossed in a book, the focus of the painting relatably isolates herself from other passengers. Bright yellow light optimistically streams in through window, providing a visual contrast to the darker and more sombre green tones of the rest of the carriage that hint at the loneliness of travel, as each person is lost to their own thoughts.
Swann Galleries’ June 30 auction Edward Hopper & His Contemporaries sale celebrates Hopper’s artistic style and contributions to the canon of American art, as well as his peers from The Eight and the Ashcan School.