So there’s a recent article in The Guardian with the title ‘We are all Edward Hopper paintings now’, which, if you know anything about Edward Hopper, might sound sad or even scary, and if you don’t know anything about him–although there’s a certain very famous painting you might recognize, but I’ll get to that in a minute–the rest of the title asks, “is he the artist of the coronavirus age?” Maybe, and the author Jonathan Jones, who pulled the line from online–there have been variations of it going around–seems to think that’s a bad thing. He says,
Modern life is unfriendly in the extreme for Hopper. It doesn’t take a pandemic to isolate his poor souls. Cold plate-glass windows, towering urban buildings where everyone lives in self-contained apartments, gas stations in the middle of nowhere – the fabric of modern cities and landscapes is for him a machine that churns out solitude.
Maybe that’s true. Consider Nighthawks, Hopper’s most famous painting:
And yet what Jones is missing is a fundamental fact about Hopper’s biography: the guy liked to be alone. He wasn’t a recluse, but he was a reserved, quiet man who preferred to let his painting speak for him. He was married, and his wife Josephine Nivison was his exact opposite: outgoing and friendly, and I’m not sure what they saw in each other, and they didn’t always get along, but somehow they made it work. Maybe it was because she, a talented artist herself, dealt with people while he shut himself in his studio, and was happy to act as his agent and model. She even said that she planned to write two biographies: one of Hopper and one of her cat Arthur, who, according to her, lived an extravagant life. Sometimes Hopper even felt like he was playing second fiddle to Arthur; he once did a quick sketch of himself on the floor eating out of a dish while an oversized Arthur sits at the table giving him the side-eye.
Hopper even had a few friends, and Josephine described him walking down the sidewalk with a friend, both of them a few feet apart, neither one saying a word. Yes, Edward Hopper would be very happy in a world of social distancing. Here’s a picture of Edward Hopper very happy:
Here’s a picture of Edward Hopper deeply depressed:
Jones also brings up Hopper’s painting House By The Railroad, which Hitchcock used as a model for the Bates house in Psycho. This must be a scene of deep terror, right? Except the Bates house is unpainted, and Psycho was filmed in stark black and white, while Hopper’s painting has subtle touches of color. It’s near a railroad which keeps it in touch with the world while the Bates Motel is off the beaten path.
Hopper liked to ride the subways of New York and look in the windows as they passed by. He and his wife would make up stories about the people, and some of his paintings were inspired by the scenes he glimpsed. He may not have wanted to hang out with people but he still found a way to connect with them, and he said, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.”
And, funny enough, late last year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had a selection of works called “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” that included a real hotel room recreated from his painting Western Motel. A lot of people happily paid the $150 per night rate to be part of Hopper’s world. It may seem austere but it’s not a sad or lonely place. Like any hotel it’s defined by what the traveler brings to it.
Finally just because Hopper was a quiet and kind of taciturn guy he wasn’t joyless. He even enjoyed the company of others sometimes. Check out this picture he did of himself boxing with a friend during a camping trip when he was seventeen.
That’s Hopper on the right. Notice the social distancing.
Art historians describe Hopper as the artist of modern loneliness and isolation, of a deep sadness in the contradiction that cities bring people physically close but create vast emotional distances. Except it’s not that simple. I’m a very social guy myself–I like being around people, and even though I’m willing to accept the current isolation as a necessity I don’t like it. Still there are advantages to solitude. It’s a chance to explore our own individual vast and varied realms.
Now that I’ve said all that go back and look at Nighthawks again. Are the people in it really isolated from each other? Are they lonely? Or have they, separate but together, found a light in the darkness?
I’m indebted to Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography for information on his life and work.