The Magazine

Hopper's World

Solitude, light, and harbingers of death.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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If Hopperesque means hopelessly cut off from others, even when they are present, then his reputation as a ruthless chronicler of a peculiarly American form of alienation, transience, and anomie is deserved. The trouble is, this view of Hopper makes him "depressing" rather than "uplifting," to borrow the nontechnical language of the average museumgoer. And that makes it hard to explain his success. In a perceptive essay about Nighthawks, co-curator Judith A. Barter reports that "Nighthawks was an instantly popular picture. It was requested so continuously and lent so often to art galleries, museum exhibitions, and even state fairs that by 1953 it required conservation."

In postwar America, depressing art did not typically find a big welcome at state fairs. So maybe Hopper is not so depressing after all?

Let us return to Hopper's love of light, and his use of it first as a unifying device and later as a consoling and inspiring presence. To appreciate the unifying aspect, look again at the New England watercolors. Walk into any gallery in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, or Ogunquit, Maine, and you will see dozens of pretty pictures full of bright, warm colors. But look again, and you will see that most of them contain no light. What they do contain, and what someone like Thomas Kinkade turns out by the truckload, is lighting: -Theatrical, fake, formulaic, predictable. It takes true artistry to paint real light--firelight, lamplight, most of all sunlight--splashing, stroking, and saturating the surface of things in the living moment. Hopper achieved this artistry early, and while his oils lack the spontaneity of his watercolors and can be theatrical at times (Nighthawks being the salient example), the light in them is never fake, formulaic, or predictable.

Consider how Hopper's world looks in the absence of light. One of his early New York canvases, The City (1927), offers a distorted view of Washington Square seen from the fifth or sixth floor of an unseen building. Edmund Wilson, who lived on the square at the time, was so appalled by this distortion he denounced the painting in a newspaper column entitled "The Crushing of Washington Square." But The City is ugly, even if you've never laid eyes on Washington Square, because it has no sun. Under a dull overcast sky, a motley collection of buildings stand around like strangers at a bus stop, not clashing but not connecting either. The contrast could not be greater with another masterpiece, Early Sunday Morning (1930), in which a normally unassuming row of Seventh Avenue storefronts is gloriously transformed by strong, directional sunlight.

Hopper's human figures seem so sunk into themselves, so oblivious to their surroundings, one could imagine the artist taking a Manichean view of matter as an evil swamp within which the light of the spirit is trapped. But this is not Hopper's vision. To the contrary, he finds redemption in the play of visible light on visible objects, especially human bodies. Sometimes the light caresses, as in Room in Brooklyn (1932), where a spot of sun warms the back of a woman's neck. Sometimes it guards, as in New York Movie (1939), where a wall sconce casts a benevolent glow on the head of a lonely usherette. And sometimes it ravishes, as in Summertime (1943), where the sun burns brazenly through the sheer fabric of a woman's dress.

The traditional term for compositions in light and dark is chiaroscuro (or, when taken to extremes, tenebrism). Hopper uses chiaroscuro to create a spectrum of emotion, from despair to hope, and to situate a human figure at the appropriate point along it. Chiaroscuro operates differently in each painting, more or less darkening the feeling of being trapped and more or less illuminating the path of release. Immobility is necessary for it to work, because Hopper's human figures are not just the objects of this treatment, they are also its subjects.

John Updike once wrote that Hopper's people appear to be listening, but not to each other. This seems about right. As Judith A. Barter expresses it, "They are not accessible to us or to each other, as they are absorbed in something beyond their physical surroundings."

Most visitors pass quickly through the final room of the exhibition, but this is a mistake, because it contains what amounts to a full confession by the artist. Hopper's last major work, completed in 1963, four years before his death, is Sun in an Empty Room. I write this on a New England fall day, when the sunshine is clear and beautiful but no longer warm. Hopper once explained to a friend that he preferred Cape Cod to Maine because the winter came too quickly in Maine. I know just what he means. To New Englanders (and to everyone who lives in a similar climate), there is no more poignant harbinger of death than the autumn sun, which does its best to reach us with its old force but cannot, because of inexorably increasing distance.

The trees outside the window of Hopper's empty room are still green, but the painting's autumnal mood is accentuated by the quality of the light. The sun pouring into the room makes oblongs of light and dark, but the real darkness is, paradoxically, outside, under the trees. There's not a lot of it, but it is exceedingly black. Spend a few minutes in front of this painting (which will be easy, because no one else does) and ask yourself: Is this depressing or uplifting?

Hopper's answer is the same one we get from life: It is both.

Martha Bayles teaches in the honors program at Boston College.