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Looking out, looking in

By Kathy Field / September 4, 1981



The American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) has been accused by many of painting resoundingly depressing pictures of life in the 20th-century United States. Popular judgment has pronounced Hopper a painter who conveyed a sense of isolation more effectively than any other.

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Hopper himself did not agree: "The loneliness thing is overdone," he said tersely.

Certainly Hopper painted people alone. In a famous example called "Automat," a lone woman takes refuge in a cafe from the looming city night outside. He often painted uninhabited landscapes and views of houses and storefronts often without a person in sight.

But Hopper arrived at this singular artistic vision by way of -- and perhaps because of -- the years he was forced to earn a living painting covers for magazines like Hotel Managementm and The Wells Fargo Messenger.m Those illustrations showed people in the swim of contemporary social life, handsome, successful and perpetually engaged in glamorous activity. Though many of these pictures are not without artistic merit, Hopper was ashamed of them. He said he didn't like to paint people "grimacing and posturing" and was relieved to leave this world behind.

When he gained enough financial freedom to paint what he wished, Hopper chose to paint people unposed and unrehearsed. They sit on the edge of beds staring into space; they avoid each other's gaze in railroad cars; they sit by themselves at the theater waiting for the show to begin. The people in his serious paintings have stepped off the magazine covers, away from commercial and social cliches, and are found in the privacy of their own rooms in the company of their own thoughts. Hopper shows the stillm side of America, and for a nation known for its efficiency and energy, this stillness has a disconcerting effect.

"Cape Cod Morning" (1950) shows the profile of a woman gazing out a bay window on an undetermined view. Her gaze is the only action in the picture. Since no object of her stare is shown, the painting causes the viewer to wonder why this woman has come to the window to look out so intently. Has she heard some sound from the forest, like the barely audible snap from Chekhov's cherry orchard?

The repetition, in Hopper's work, of this image of looking out from a building without a view (whether it be an office, apartment or lonely country house) has the cumulative effect of saying that one looks out only to be faced by the view of one's own thoughts, the view within. Subject and object are allied, conjoined, inevitably linked.

Hopper used to carry in his pocket a saying by Goethe: "The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me . . . ." Hopper's paintings show people surrounded by the world that is in them. The atmosphere and setting he paints around them reiterates their mental state as the paintings themselves reiterate Edward Hopper.

Hopper admitted that much of his art, regardless of subject, was a kind of self-portraiture. His 1963 painting "Sunlight in an Empty Room" shows an unpeopled, unfurnished room with sunlight streaming onto the walls and floors. When asked what he was after in this picture, Hopper said: "I'm after ME."

So Hopper demonstrated that it was possible to symbolize, at least partly, the world within by means of the world without. Perhaps this is one reason his paintings are so emphatically evocative of mood, a mood that has often been misinterpreted as loneliness.

Such is the stillness and intensity of "Cape Cod Morning," for instance, that time seems suspended. Every molecule is in place. It is in this atmosphere, evoked so cleverly and deliberately, that Hopper suggests something of the moral earnestness of being alone, faced with oneself and the prospect of self-knowledge.