It is not difficult to find examples of social distancing in Edward Hopper’s works. This blog has explored Office in a Small City, which is a reality I face daily being one of about three people working in my office. Hooper (1882-1967) is one of the great American artists to have ever lived. He is most widely known for his oil paintings but was also highly proficient at watercolours and etchings, having produced over 800 works during his career. Hopper seems to be the perfect artist for this time of extreme alienation, isolation and loneliness. Del Ray Artisans, who are hosting an exhibition called After Edward Hopper: Themes of Solitude and Isolation” describe the themes in Hopper’s works as being profoundly American in that they represent “perseverance, fortitude, diversity, and an egalitarian spirit in spite of adversity, impoverishment, and social injustice.” Del Ray Artisans. With this in mind, we shall examine Hopper’s wonderful Sunlight in a Cafeteria, painted in 1958.
Hopper lived from 1882 to 1967, but his paintings have an emotional resurgence today. As the world moved into 2021, the pandemic has come with it. Many Americans could not or chose not to see families and friends for the holidays, afraid that contact would spread the virus. We did not throw parties on New Year’s Eve, instead staying in our homes with our dinners and our countdown shows. We have spent the better part of a year like this: isolated.
Isolation is what Hopper’s paintings capture so well. In 1927’s Automat, a woman sits by herself at a small table. She already has her coffee, and, though there is another chair at the table, we cannot know if she is waiting for someone, or if that someone will ever arrive. 1930’s Early Sunday Morning shows a series of storefronts in the daytime, all dark, all empty. In Room in New York, painted in 1932, a woman and man sit in a room, together but also somehow apart. He’s reading a paper. Her back is mostly to him while she half-heartedly tinkers with the piano. In my personal favourites, Morning Sun from 1952 and Office in a Small City from 1953, a woman on a sun-kissed bed and a man in a small office, respectively, sit alone and stare out of their windows at the world, or at least the little parts of the world that they can see. New Statesman
Hopper depicts two individual diners in a cafe in a quiet side street. They are not being waited on, despite the broad daylight and lack of other customers to attend to. The perspective of this scene is taken from the inside of the diner. In these ways Sunlight in a Cafeteria is the direct mirror image of Nighthawks. This is an interesting painting for Hopper. This does not depict a lone figure of figures isolated but instead depicts two people on the cusp of communication. How interesting that Hopper chose the moment before the first contact between two presumably single lonely people (in a cafe on their own). The woman’s hair is quite dazzling and together with her dress represent a splash of colour in the centre ground of the painting. I would add that the wonderful symmetrical shade detail is also meant to highlight her. Perhaps we are seeing this painting through the perspective of the potential lover about to speak to her.
Hopper is a master of subtle allusion. We see a man and woman seated at separate tables in a sunny cafeteria. They are the only customers. What interests the artist is the suspenseful moment before a first tentative contact is made, the mental and emotional forcefield that can arise between two strangers. Edward Hopper
Having mentioned Nighthawks above, I must draw your attention to Kelly MacConomy’s Covid Nighthawks reimagined, below, which presents a splendid scene. MacConomy must have wondered how to make Hopper’s work more lonely. Perhaps reflecting on the Government response to COVID19 was the only way. This is an observation, not a criticism. This is not a political blog!
Together these two paintings exemplify some of what I imagine must be the national mood throughout the lockdowns this last year. They are wonderful, insightful and terribly affecting.