New York through Edward Hopper’s Eyes
Issue 8, Volume 113
The crowds shuffle quietly, gazing at paintings of an almost unrecognizable New York City. Acting as a time capsule, the Whitney Museum’s Edward Hopper’s New York exhibition provides a look at the city’s coming-of-age.
Edward Hopper was an American realist painter and printmaker born in 1882, to parents who exposed him to the arts at a young age. He went on to study at the New York School of Art before moving to Greenwich Village, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. During his lifetime, Hopper experienced both world wars and the Great Depression, and his paintings highlight the emotions of Americans during these pivotal eras.
Hopper is often regarded as the most prominent artist of the Realist movement, an artistic period of the 19th century that aimed to depict subjects accurately and naturally. He is best known for oil paintings like Automat (1927) and Nighthawks (1942). Though his oeuvre is dominated by oil paintings, Hopper also made many prints in his early career. Despite the success of these early works, Hopper never enjoyed illustrating, and instead began to paint from his observations and imagination. Most of Hopper’s works are portraits, both of important people in his life and of New York City. In addition, some of his pieces reflect the patriarchal society in the workforce and at home, with a man occupying a higher position of power and asserting dominance over a compliant woman. During Hopper’s time, the city was at its peak of urbanization, but he often portrays the metropolis in a lifeless yet soothing manner. The majority of his work consists of mellow, muted colors—dull midnight blues, dim vermilions, alabastrine ivories, smokey greens—and depict no more than a few subjects. Though his paintings present a calming, undisturbed ambience to the viewer, conveying contentment in solitude, his art simultaneously invokes a feeling of alienation and strangeness, creating a dissociation from today’s New York City.
The exhibit has a notable section dedicated to Hopper’s wife, Jo. This segment contextualizes the subject matter, creating a personal bridge connecting the viewer to the artwork. There is a subtle difference between this bit and the rest of the exhibition, as a major component of Hopper’s paintings is unfamiliarity and distance from the subject, which is absent here.
One of Hopper’s most famous pieces, Automat, is an oil painting featuring a pale young woman alone in an automat—a vintage eatery in which fast food is served by vending machines. She has a rosy complexion and tart red lips, and is dressed in a teal fur coat and straw hat. The woman sits alone at a table for two, her focus on the white porcelain mug in her hand. The establishment is brightly lit, contrasting with the solemn blue-black background that fills the large commercial window behind the woman. The mood of both the painting and the woman is ambiguous and open to interpretation: is Hopper depicting a comfortable reclusiveness, or is it empty detachment? The skillful use of light reflections in the window behind the woman convey depth, creating a three-dimensional feel in the backdrop. In general, windows are a recurring symbol in Hopper’s paintings, representing boundaries between the chaotic city outside and the peaceful interiors of establishments. In Automat, the window reinforces themes of alienation, emphasizing the woman’s role as a mere spectator to the outside world.
With a similar theme of independence and reflection, Hopper’s New York Movie (1939) depicts a blonde woman dressed in a sapphire blue jumpsuit, outlined with a crimson red. Despite being the main subject, she stands to the side of the theater, leaning against the cantaloupe-colored walls. The woman appears to be in deep deliberation, as the lighting casts shadows over her eyes and creates a mysterious impression. From the glimpse of the theater house, it is evident that the audience is incredibly small; a row of velvety seats separates the only two discernible attendees, and their gazes remain fixated on the stage. The overall duskiness contributes to the reticent, undisturbed atmosphere.
By frequently focusing on a single subject, Hopper’s pieces recognize the individuality of New Yorkers and zoom in on their stories. His works are remarkable for countering the over-representation of paradigmatic portrayals of New York—a fast-paced city with endless energy, a city that never sleeps. His subjects are often alone, and even when he depicts multiple people, they never interact, accentuating the theme of isolation. Relevant to the melancholic sentiments of wartime and Depression America, the people in his paintings are emotionless, almost afraid to show any sign of vulnerability when so much is at stake.
Coming from an upper-middle class background, Hopper never painted members of the lower class, despite the homelessness epidemic during the Great Depression, or people of color. Instead, he depicted the same white upper-middle class man and woman over and over again.