Companionship in Solitude with Hopper
by Louisa Hutchinson | 22 November 2022
This summer I visited New York City for the first time and spent much of my time exploring this strange new city by myself. As a long-time admirer of the paintings of Edward Hopper, I was keen to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art to see some of his paintings in person for the first time. My time in New York led me to consider the impact of these paintings in a new light.
The magnetism of Hopper paintings stems from their ambiguous emotional dimensions and contrasting qualities which coexist in one composition. Each piece simultaneously looks like a snapshot from a movie moments before action, and yet an eternally still composition. Even a painting of an empty room looks both like it will forever be empty and it is just waiting with bated breath to be filled. The figures are often absorbed in something, even just staring into the distance. The viewer feels almost voyeuristic, and perhaps even afraid of disturbing this fragile stillness-- often looking at the subject through a window, or another such narrative frame which creates a feeling of physical and emotional distance.
Edward Hopper, Room in New York, oil on canvas, 1932, Sheldon Museum of Art, Nebraska (Photo: Sheldon Art Museum)
An example of these contradictions and ambiguities is Room in New York (1932). In Room in New York, the viewer watches a brightly lit room through a dark window. Inside, a couple sits immersed in separate activities with differing levels of enthusiasm: intently reading a newspaper and absent-mindedly keying notes on a piano; though both unaware of the presence of the viewer. This view in many Hopper paintings can be described as both impersonal and incredibly intimate. The air of stillness clashes with the sense of an ongoing narrative, creating an uneasy mood. The couple is separated by physical distance, which is articulated by the doorframe, and by the estrangement created by their body language and separate activities. The viewer struggles to identify the atmosphere in the room as tension or companionable solitude. Many of Hopper’s paintings work in similar ways: they are uneasy yet comforting, familiar yet strange, dynamic yet still, narrative yet timeless and, perhaps most importantly, solitary but not desolate.
Exploring New York alone, and the realities of urban isolation had similar contradictory qualities. It seems incredibly easy to feel insignificant in such a large place with so many people. I felt like part of the diverse and vibrant city life, never being alone, and yet still self-contained. The most common and most officially used language is English, my mother tongue, yet there are a plethora of cultural differences which felt impossible to navigate. New York City itself is recognisable in thousands of ways, from the architecture right down to the steam escaping the subway, and yet all so unfamiliar to a newcomer – it feels impossible to tap into a city with so many people, and thus it is easy to feel isolated. I was understanding my aloneness in the city as loneliness, and my own company was beginning to get uncomfortable.
Hopper, a New York resident, documented this urban isolation in various paintings as the landscape of the city changed immeasurably over the course of his life. Particularly later in his career, he often left out the iconic skylines and monumental bridges in favour of seeking evocative urban experiences, capturing the intimate moments in the experience of living in such a fast-growing metropolis, and the emotional effects this could cause.
Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952, oil on canvas, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio (Photo: Columbus Museum of Art)
In Morning Sun (1952), the isolation of living in the modern city is captured. A woman is pictured inside an apartment bedroom, with the window providing a view of the city outside. The woman gazes out at the sun and the city sky with an unreadable expression. The generic backdrop of the room and uniform building type outside the window remind us of how impersonal urban dwelling can feel. The woman being in the role of observer alone in her room watching through the window, rather than being observed, places her in a point of remoteness.
Once again ambiguous in mood, the interpretation of Morning Sun relies on the emotional state of the viewer. Perhaps the cityscape serves as the backdrop for quiet contemplation, the stark interior providing quiet respite from what lays outside the window. I found myself often returning to my accommodation when overwhelmed and appreciating how peaceful the city looked from the inside looking out; this often paradoxically felt less isolating than being alone in the crowds of the city. For Hopper, solitude was certainly not the same as loneliness – he was a believer that art expressed the ‘inner life' of the artist, and famously a solitary individual, even to his own wife. The solitary figures painted by Hopper may contain both loneliness and the contented solitude Hopper was known for in his own life.
I visited the Whitney Museum at the halfway point of my trip. The first Hopper I was greeted by was Soir Bleu (1914), a painting distinctly not of New York. However, it is most certainly a painting which reflects feeling alone in a crowd. The seven figures in the painting, which include a well-dressed bourgeois couple, a uniformed official, a beret wearing bohemian, a working-class man smoking a cigarette, a sex worker and a clown are based on sketches hopper made in French cafes in his early career.
Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu, 1914, Oil on Canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art. New York. (Photo: Whitney Museum)
Sitting at just three tables, all the figures come from very different backgrounds and do not interact with one another, engrossed in their own thoughts. The viewer is drawn to the most unusual figure, the clown, who despite his happy makeup sits slumped in his chair, lost in thought, and smoking a cigarette. It is unclear if this is a moment of relaxation or desolation. Three of the other figures – the bohemian, the bourgeois man and the sex worker all appear to be looking at the clown, who holds a downturned gaze. The group is clearly in a social setting and yet they are not socialising – their physical presence is juxtaposed by their emotional absence. The viewer is left to speculate about each figure, how they came to be there, and whether their solitude is comfortable or lonely. Yet despite their disconnection, there seems to be a sense of unity and belonging in the very fact that they are all alone, together.
The Whitney Collection also houses seventeen of the nineteen known studies for Nighthawks (1942). Hopper’s most famous composition and the best example of urban loneliness, depicts four people in a New York diner, through the diner’s glass window from the dark street. The figures seated in the diner are enclosed in light, and yet the large glass windows make them feel unprotected from the dark night, exposed and vulnerable. The lack of a visible entrance to the establishment isolates the four figures from the outside world, and the ambiguity of the narrative allows for speculation. The patrons of the diner in Nighthawks appear detached from one another, all comfortably engrossed in separate thoughts, despite all sharing in the quiet space together. This is still an important facet of the American diner – a place where patrons can go to socialise or to be alone at any hour. In many of Hopper’s works, figures seem alienated from themselves rather than alienated from one another. Much like in Soir Bleu, there seems a sense of community in their mutual solitude. The scarce number of patrons due to the late hour creates a sense of companionship between them, despite their lack of interaction.
Edward Hopper, Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (photo: Whitney Museum)
Equipped with newfound comfort in my own company, I took on a new perspective in the second half of my trip. The works concerning urban alienation that I had seen on my visit contained an element of comfort – our need for intimacy and connection can be somewhat met by simply being alone together. It was no longer as overwhelming being alone in the crowds of New York – because at least I was a part of those crowds. This made the small moments of connection on my trip more meaningful, and the solitary moments less lonely. Glimpses into windows on walks and fellow lone diners at lunchtime became silent points of connection, making my own company feel less oppressive. I began to feel like the subject of a Hopper painting; alone and yet quietly connected to my surroundings in my solitude. The subjective element of the paintings allows viewers to identify with the scenes and feel that their own condition has been seen and recognised by the artist. Hopper’s visual distinctions between solitude and loneliness help the viewer to understand that solitude is not a bad thing, provided you don’t feel lonely.
Nochlin, Linda. “Edward Hopper and the Imagery of Alienation.” Art Journal 41, no. 2 (1981)
Stanton, Joseph. “ON EDGE: Edward Hopper’s Narrative Stillness.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 77, no. 1/2 (1994): 21–40.