Edward Hopper: The Master of Isolation
By Gabriella Sotiriou
Edward Hopper was born in June 1882 and died in 1967. He lived during a time of great change, a time of machines. The machine age categorised the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Whilst Europe was dealing with the results of the Great War in 1918, America was becoming an entirely new man-made world. There was a sudden expectation for man to keep up with machine or risk becoming redundant. Therefore, there was a predominant feeling of man becoming alienated. Alienated from nature and from fellow man.
Previously, artists had often shown man as a dominant force over nature; as seen in Life Saving Patrol (1893) by Edward Moran. A calm sea, balanced horizon and a dog serve as man’s steady companions. The scale of the anonymous male figure, a lifeguard, against the water shows the balance of the power being in favour of man rather than nature. However, this was not the world that Edward Hopper experienced. Instead, Hopper chose to express personal concerns over urban industrialisation and the consequential disappearance of the individual. Much like film noir, his paintings show negativity that came from urbanisation and the fear of not knowing ‘what’s next’.
Though his paintings are generally aesthetically simple, they do uphold a level of complexity. Through a setting of typical American interiors, the viewer is encouraged to undergo personal contemplation. The familiarity of the situations conjured within Hopper’s work allows viewers to feel as though they recognise the possible thoughts and emotions of the figures, despite there being no clear narrative. It was known that Hopper was a keen moviegoer and the ‘film still’ effect of his paintings allow the individual to create their own narrative. Hopper provides a single snapshot, we provide the rest.
The cinema became a common scene in Hopper’s work. The American movie theatre, a place associated with the newly emerging fantasies of Hollywood, was where people were able to escape the mundanities of their everyday lives. However, for the usher in New York Movie (1939) it is just another shift of repetitive boredom; having seen the same movie night after night. Her stillness appears eternal, contrasting the constant changing images flickering across the screen and in turn creates two distinct worlds within the painting. One of impossible ideals of glamour and thrilling movement by which a crowd is joyfully hypnotised, indulging in the excitement of machine. The other occupied by an individual, isolated and melancholic, lost in her own thoughts. She is no longer entranced. Despite the seemingly endless repetition of her job, the brightly lit staircase suggests a possibility of escape from the mundane, a raising of her position. However, she remains focused on what is in front of her with her eyes fixed on the ground. Hopper makes it unknown as to whether she will escape the reels of unreality that surround her.
Hopper again uses the movie theatre to form a contrast between two works, New York Corner (1913) and the etching Night Shadows (1921). The former is an image in which there is little conversation or communication between the people in the scene. They wear the uniform of the modern metropolis, black and collective. The red theatre is separated from the bleak and foggy background by its bold outline and colour. This evokes the idea of theatre scenery, the unanimous public representing a chorus. The painting therefore becomes a visual reproduction of Shakespeare’s infamous line ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’. Night Shadows, though set on the same street corner, undergoes very different treatment. A lone individual is seen from above depicted in harshly contrasting black and white. It evokes film noir in its suggestion of crime, betrayal and its overall mood of suspense. In doing this, Hopper captures all of the aspects of the urban city, both in its regular daytime clarity and the murky danger that emerges when only street lights break through the dark.
The isolation that is evident in these images forms the clearest theme amongst Hopper’s work. We see it again in his 1927 painting Automat. A young woman, with eyes focused on her coffee, sits alone at a table. This large, round table is a symbol of her own ‘inner world’ with which she has a clear infatuation. Her femininity is apparent, noticeable through her delicately crossed legs, her fur coat and red lipstick. A bowl of fruit is positioned directly behind her, emphasising her fertility. However, her ripe youthfulness does not matter. The chair opposite her downcast eyes is empty and we are reminded that she is alone.
Room in New York (1932) is an example of loneliness and isolation when not physically or even legally alone. Alienation has affected this married couple who are now only linked through the domesticity of their home, symbolised by the table. The man is dressed as though he has recently returned from work, contrasting his wife, who wears a red evening dress. She possibly hopes to break away from the suffocating domesticity and regularity of their surroundings, away from the alienation from one another. However, the firmly closed door positioned between the couple signifies the solidity of their physical and spiritual separation. Not even the noise made by her hand tinkering along the piano keys can break her husband’s attention away from his newspaper.
Edward Hopper captures the epitome of machine-made America in Gas (1940). The building to the right, painted white, evokes a place of religious worship with a divine light seemingly pouring from it. The hanging sign is decorated with an image of the mythological horse Pegasus, a symbol of speed, which in this case stands for the rapid machine transport through the gas pumps. The pumps stand like religious idols. The attendant serves the machines, symbolising man being servant to machine. In a more sinister tone, Hopper makes these pumps blood red, symbolising the blood that machine sucks from man as he alienates him from his own world and what makes him human.
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