Great museums are rightly known for their great treasures. Small museums often contain treasures as well, but are seldom known to any but a local audience.
Edward Hopper's ''New York Restaurant'' is one of the treasures of just such a small museum, the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Mich. The companions of the Hopper include works by Whistler, Winslow Homer, Inness, and Curry, not to mention graphic works by Rembrandt and many other of the most famous names in art history.
The Hopper is a particular favorite of many local museumgoers, however. It is also a particular favorite of other institutions, which have frequently borrowed the painting, thus giving this single work - if not the entire museum - wider exposure.
For those familiar with the spare, almost barren urban landscapes for which Hopper is best known, ''New York Restaurant'' is a remarkably populated painting. There are six more or less full figures, and hints of several more in the upper left background.
There is also an unusual sense of activity in this painting, a ''stir'' one seldom associates with Hopper's disposition of his figures. The waitress and the customers in the left third seem busy enough, the man seated at the table in the center seems to be caught in mid-bite, the coat and hat at right are probably hanging on a hook but also suggest a figure moving off-canvas out of sight.
The bustle of this collection of six diners and waitresses is balanced by the stabilizing vertical lines of the door that fills the center of the image, and the somewhat softer vertical of the potted plant at the right.
To this observer's eye, at least, the slight tilt of the plant to the right balances nicely the left-leaning waitress in the white apron. The tilt of the plant, of course, also suggests its search for a little sunlight in the dark canyons of the city; and the plant is the one reminder of a natural world outside the cityscape.
The colors of the painting, which are not reproducible in black and white, obviously, include warm reds, greens, and golds. The sense of activity in the painting is partly due to the colors, but there is a certain stillness to the massy shapes that again provides a kind of balance.
What sense of life in New York does the painting convey? Perhaps it is this tension between the moving and the stable, the stillness and the bustle. Eating out in New York is a way of being part of the crowd while still having a moment of quiet. Eating out anywhere, in fact, gives one this twofold experience. For Hopper, perhaps it was particularly worth observing in New York, where the sense of perpetual motion is so strong.
This ''New York Restaurant'' has come to rest in the Midwest, however. In such an environment it seems particularly pleasing. It brings a hint of the ''Big City'' while conveying an image that is universal.
In the catalog of American paintings in the permanent collection of the Muskegon Museum of Art there is a quotation from a letter Hopper wrote the museum regarding ''New York Restaurant'': ''In a specific and concrete sense the idea was to attempt to make visual the crowded glamour of a New York restaurant during the noon hour. I am hoping that ideas less easy to define have, perhaps, crept in also.''