Splendid Solitude: The Art of Edward Hopper

The dark streets are deserted,
With only a drugstore glowing
Softly, like a sleeping body….

Who lives in these dark houses?
I am suddenly aware
I might live here myself

~ Louis Simpson (1923-2012), After Midnight

Imagine you are a gas attendant working the night shift. The gas station is by the side of a narrow road ringed by a foreboding thick forest in the middle of nowhere. All night, not a single vehicle drove by, and the only thing that breaks the silence of the night are the invisible denizens of the forest. Amid the bleakness of the surroundings, the radiance from the station seems to be the only visible solace as the attendant plods on until his shift ends. This is the scene depicted in Gas Station (1940) by the American painter, Edward Hopper (1882–1967).

Edward Hopper, Gas Station (1940), oil on canvas, 67 x 1020 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Gas Station is typical of the melancholic mood that Hopper’s paintings portray. In Hopper’s eyes, America, even for an American, may present itself in quite an alien manner.

An accomplished artist, Hopper handled landscape and portraiture with equal technical aplomb. What intrigues viewers, however, is not his technique, but the pervading sense of loneliness Hopper creates with it. There is cold silence in his breezy New England landscapes, and mournfulness even in his portraits of his vivacious and beloved wife, the artist Josephine Nivison. His paintings are peopled with souls unable to bridge the distance between them to make a connection. Whether it is a railroad, a night cafeteria, a pensive traveler in a hotel room or couples gazing at a beautiful stretch of the sea, the scene is always desolate, and the few characters (seldom more than three) are psychologically remote in their private space of dreams. Indeed, Hopper saw his art as an expression of the subconsciousness, which he imagined as a “vast and varied realm.”

Other Works by Edward Hopper

Drug Store (1927), oil on canvas, 73 x 101 cm, Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
Hotel Room (1931), oil on canvas, 152 x 166 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Room in New York (1932), oil on canvas, 74 x 93 cm, Sheldon Museum of Art, Nebraska.
Night Hawks (1942), oil on canvas, 84 x 152 cm, Art Institute Chicago.
High Noon (1949), oil on canvas, 69 x 100, Dayton Art Institute, Ohio.
Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 65 x 52 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art.

Further Study

Barr, Alfred, H. Jr., Edward Hopper: Retrospective Exhibition, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1933. For a discussion of the full rang ef Hopper’s work, see Levin, Gail, Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980.

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