Read an Excerpt
I often feel that the scenes in Edward Hopper paintings are scenes from my own past. It may be because I was a child in the 1940s and the world I saw was pretty much the one I see when I look at Hoppers today. It may be because the adult world that surrounded me seemed as remote as the one that flourishes in his work. But whatever the reasons, the fact remains that looking at Hopper is inextricably bound with what I saw in those days. The clothes, the houses, the streets and storefronts are the same. When I was a child what I saw of the world beyond my immediate neighborhood I saw from the backseat of my parents' car. It was a world glimpsed in passing. It was still. It had its own life and did not know or care that I happened by at a particular time. Like the world of Hopper's paintings, it did not return my gaze.
The observations that follow are not a nostalgic look at Hopper's work. They do, however, recognize the importance for him of roads and tracks, of passageways and temporary stopping places, or to put it generally, of travel. They recognize as well the repeated use of certain geometrical figures that bear directly on what the viewer's response is likely to be. And they recognize that the invitation to construct a narrative for each painting is also part of the experience of looking at Hopper. And this, inasmuch as it demands an involvement in particular paintings, indicates a resistance to having the viewer move on. These two imperatives-the one that urges us to continue and the other that compels us to stay-create a tension that is constant in Hopper's work.
In Nighthawks, three people are sitting in what must be an all-night diner. The diner is situated on a corner and is harshly lit. Though engaged in a task, an employee, dressed in white, looks up toward one of the customers. The customer, who is sitting next to a distracted woman, looks at the employee. Another customer, whose back is to us, looks in the general direction of the man and the woman. It is a scene one might have encountered forty or fifty years ago, walking late at night through New York City's Greenwich Village or, perhaps, through the heart of any city in the northeastern United States. There is nothing menacing about it, nothing that suggests danger is waiting around the corner. The diner's coolly lit interior sheds overlapping densities of light on the adjacent sidewalk, giving it an aesthetic character. It is as if the light were a cleansing agent, for nowhere are there signs of urban filth. The city, as in most Hoppers, asserts itself formally rather than realistically. The dominant feature of the scene is the long window through which we see the diner. It covers two-thirds of the canvas, forming the geometrical shape of an isosceles trapezoid, which establishes the directional pull of the painting, toward a vanishing point that cannot be witnessed, but must be imagined. Our eye travels along the face of the glass, moving from right to left, urged on by the converging sides of the trapezoid, the green tile, the counter, the row of round stools that mimic our footsteps, and the yellow-white neon glare along the top. We are not drawn into the diner but are led alongside it. Like so many scenes we register in passing, its sudden, immediate clarity absorbs us, momentarily isolating us from everything else, and then releases us to continue on our way.
In Nighthawks, however, we are not easily released. The long sides of the trapezoid slant toward each other but never join, leaving the viewer midway in their trajectory. The vanishing point, like the end of the viewer's journey or walk, is in an unreal and unrealizable place, somewhere off the canvas, out of the picture. The diner is an island of light distracting whoever might be walking by-in this case, ourselves-from journey's end. This distraction might be construed as salvation. For a vanishing point is not just where converging lines meet, it is also where we cease to be, the end of each of our individual journeys. Looking at Nighthawks, we are suspended between contradictory imperatives-one, governed by the trapezoid, that urges us forward, and the other, governed by the image of a light place in a dark city, that urges us to stay.
Here, as in other Hopper paintings where streets and roads play an important part, no cars are shown. No one is there to share what we see, and no one has come before us. What we experience will be entirely ours. The exclusions of travel, along with our own sense of loss and our passing absence, will flourish.
Painted the same year as Nighthawks, Dawn in Pennsylvania is also dominated by an isosceles trapezoid, one that, in this case, extends nearly across the full horizontal plane of the canvas. And the periodic posting of verticals that frame and give momentary respite in both paintings from the strong horizontal movement of the trapezoid are in almost identical positions and of the same size. But instead of looking into a diner, we look out toward a couple of industrial buildings from a covered station platform. And instead of walking somewhere, we are waiting to go somewhere. The feeling is that we will be waiting a long time. The large, squarish, off-white pillar breaks the forward thrust of the trapezoid, and the rear of a parked railcar powerfully suggests that nothing in this station is moving. Unlike the complex Nighthawks, this painting turns on a simple paradox, which is that we feel trapped in a place whose purpose has to do with travel. The trapezoid-with some assistance from the tracks and the parked train-may suggest motion, but it is overwhelmed by the depth it encloses. That is, we look much further into Dawn in Pennsylvania than we do into Nighthawks and find ourselves looking through the trapezoid instead of being led by it. What we encounter is the cold and feeble light of a new day.
The storefront in Seven a.m. seems cheerful in its ordinary whiteness, its lack of clutter, its geometric certainty. And the trapezoid it forms is nowhere near as acute or extended, nor as troubling, as those that appear in Dawn in Pennsylvania and Nighthawks. Even though we are prevented from witnessing its resolution, we do not feel left behind or left out. For one thing, we seem to be in front of the store because we choose to be. There is no sense-as there is in Nighthawks-that we have just happened by. Nor is there a feeling of being imprisoned as there is in Dawn in Pennsylvania. We may have approached for any number of reasons. Or no reason. It does not much matter. There is no urgency; there is only a geometric calm. And something else, something that the primness and tidiness of the storefront almost seems an attempt to hide-the massed trees, which form the dark, tangled, impenetrable presence of nature. They exist in the painting as a frightening alternative to the store, which manifests a set of orders, the most obvious of which is the temporal one symbolized by the centrally located clock, while the most civilized is the historical one represented by the engaged columns that flank the plate glass windows. Our position relative to the storefront is pretty much what it is in Nighthawks relative to the diner, but since the store is closed we are less drawn to what is inside, and we are more doubtful about the woods than we are about the city streets.
In Second Story Sunlight two identical white gables, each with two windows on the second floor and one on the third, face the sun. Their roofs are a dark blue-gray and their shadow sides are a violet blue. On the porch in front of the gable closest to the viewer an old woman in a navy dress sits reading, and a young woman in shorts and halter sits sideways on the porch railing. Behind the twin gables is a group of trees that seems, because of its upward slant, to be growing on a hillside. Dark and forbidding, it appears, nevertheless, to manifest as much order as it does wildness, perhaps because of the measured progression of the tree trunks. In fact, the whole painting is especially well-ordered. But the two figures do not seem to contribute to the equilibrium of the arrangement. They generate a different sort of energy, one that livens and, consequently, tends to undermine the stability of the scene. That is, in a painting where everything seems perfectly resolved in relation to everything else, we have these two women whose relationship to each other is unclear. The older woman is reading a magazine, the younger one gazes beyond the picture frame. The fact that they are individually occupied but share the same porch is enough to offer up narrative possibilities that would carry the viewer far beyond what he sees. Nevertheless, the two forms of visual engagement-the spatial and the narrative-seem to balance each other, neither one assuming total dominance. When the narratives we supply go too far, the painting's geometry calls us back, and when the painting's geometry gets dull, its narrative potential reasserts itself.
Usually when woods appear in a Hopper they are across a road or behind a house and do not reveal much of themselves. In Four Lane Road, they are a blur, a hedge of trees; in Gas, they are somewhat more defined, but not to the degree that the buildings in Hopper's paintings are. With the exception of the tamarack, Hopper's trees are generic. They look the way trees do when we drive by them at fifty or sixty miles an hour. And yet his woods have a peculiar and forceful identity. Compared to the woods that precede them in American painting, they are somber and uninviting. The wilderness of Cole, Church, and Bierstadt was panoramic, open and available. It overwhelmed but did not threaten. Its enhancements were inspirational, not fearful. It was a vast theater in which the moment of creation was enacted again and again. For Hopper, the wilderness is nature's dark side, heavy and brooding.
In Gas the shadowy woods seem poised, ready to absorb the viewer as well as whoever happens to be traveling down the road between them and the gas station. But they remain little more than an ominous backdrop to the small, futilely lit station and the station's attendant. It is the station, with its driveway lined with gas pumps on one side and a small white clapboard building on the other, that gathers our attention. It forms a corridor that leaves us little doubt as to where we-travelers and viewers alike-are headed. The illuminated Mobilgas sign with its small, red, winged horse only underscores, with ironic detachment, the impossibility of our escaping what seems like our mortal destiny. The presence of the station's proprietor, who is still working, does nothing to dispel our uneasy sense of what lies ahead. Even he is working against time, staving off the night, extending the day.
Four Lane Road is a good deal less ominous than Gas. It might even be thought humorous. The cigar-smoking station owner is catching some sun while a woman, presumably his wife, leans from the window to tell him something. That he should get back to work? That lunch is ready? Something, at any rate, that he feels he can ignore. She certainly isn't telling him that she loves him, but even that, in the context of this painting, might fall on deaf ears. The look of stupefied unconcern on the man's face as he stares into space while his wife tries to get his attention gives this painting a cartoonlike, anecdotal quality. The woods, meanwhile, appear uncharacteristically harmless in their background role.
House by the Railroad, with the exception of Nighthawks, is Hopper's most famous painting. It presents the sort of scene-an isolated house-that we might have passed at one time on our travels by train. The tracks suggest as much. But in this picture the tracks pass very close to the house. It may be that its owners were the victims of what we used to call "progress" and had to sell off land-in this case to the railroad. The house seems out of place yet self-possessed, even dignified, a survivor-at least for the time being. It stands in the sun but is inaccessible. Its hiddenness is illuminated but not revealed.
Standing apart, a relic of another time, the house is a piece of doomed architecture, a place with a history we cannot know. It has been passed by, and the grandeur of its containment doubles as an image of refusal. We cannot tell if it is inhabited or not. No doorway is visible. Its elaborate facade is still handsome, especially as the sunlight hits it, accenting its architectural details and lending the structure an overall solidity it probably would not actually have. And yet the light is not conventionally descriptive. The house shines with finality. It is beyond us, and so absolute in its posture of denial that attempts-and there have been many-to associate it with loneliness only trivialize it. Like other Hopper paintings we've looked at, this one makes use of geometrical properties. The familiar isosceles trapezoid is at work here as well. Formed by the tracks at the base and the cornice of the house at the top, it suggests movement to the left, toward the source of light, but in this instance only barely. The movement is counteracted by the strong verticality of the house, its stability and centrality. The house resists this pull, whether the temporal pull of light or the pull of progress or our own continuousness.
It may be that this harsh air of refusal is what makes House by the Railroad so popular. The house demands nothing from us, in fact, it seems to be turning away from wherever we are headed. It defines, with the simplest, most straightforward means, an attitude of resistance, of hierarchical disregard, and at the same time a dignified submission to the inevitable.
We look across the street to a two-story brick building that goes from one end of the canvas to the other. A strip of blue sky stretches above it, stopped on the right side by a dark square that suggests a
tall building. It is early Sunday morning. The shadows cast are long. The street is empty. The powerful horizontal thrust of curb, first- and second-story divider, and rooftop makes us feel that the street and building extend well beyond the painting's purview. How far is not important, because as viewers we locate ourselves at the approximate center of the painting, somewhere between the fire hydrant and the barber pole. We can be pretty sure that if the painting were spread out it would offer only a repetition of the features we are already familiar with. There is no actual or implied progression in the shaded or open windows, none in the doorways and storefronts. Here, as in other Hoppers, the city is idealized. The people are asleep. There is no traffic. A dreamy collaboration of stillness and quiet makes it seem that some magical moment is being extended, and that we are its privileged witnesses.