Progression of Art
House by the Railroad
House by the Railroad is, like other Hopper works, about a lot more than its simple title indicates. This three-story Victorian house with its distinctive Mansard roof sits alone on an elevated plane cut off from the viewer by the harsh horizontal denotation of a railroad track. Hopper further alienates the viewer by drawing the shades in the house, closing off all opportunity for contact between those who reside inside and the threatening march forward of modern life signified by the railroad tracks. The interplay between the world depicted and that of the viewer no doubt provoked the dialogue explored later in the postmodern art period. One couldn't begin to appreciate the work of the Abstract Expressionists, for example, without it.
The house itself resembles many found in the New England towns Hopper frequented as well as his native Rockland County. And although Jo suggested that it was imagined, "He did it out of his head," it is widely understood to be based on a house on Rte. 9W in Haverstraw, New York. A member of the family who lived there at the time distinctly recalled seeing Hopper sitting across the road working on a painting of the house.
In 1930, this became the first painting to be acquired by the newly established Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection. Hopper was delighted later on to learn that Alfred Hitchcock used it as inspiration for the house in his 1960 film, "Psycho."
Museum of Modern Art
Hopper's Automat captures a woman who has stepped out of the busy urban scene incumbent with necessary human interaction, taking refuge in the respite provided by a local diner. This image perfectly captures Hopper's brilliant depictions of the isolation of the individual within the modern urban city. The main figure is depicted sitting alone at a table, staring pensively down at her coffee. The fact that she still wears one glove, having removed the other, indicates this will be a brief stop and that she'll soon hurry on to another destination. By definition, automats (self-service restaurants where the food and drinks were dispensed through vending machines) suggest isolated experiences, the opportunity to pick up a meal without exchanging pleasantries. This subject probably had great appeal to the reticent, slightly antisocial Hopper. Of additional interest is her delineation from an adjacent table, suggesting the presence of an unidentified viewer. The idea of a voyeur's gaze on a lonely, dejected single woman was exhibited in Impressionistic masterpieces such as Édouard Manet's The Plum (c. 1877) and Edgar Degas's L'Absinthe (1876). Hopper surpasses these images by elevating the significance of the setting to a level on par with that of the figure, emphasizing the automat's function as a busy venue where, despite the autonomous act of retrieving food from a machine, crowds are the norm. Psychological nuance is added by focusing on a woman sunk in loneliness despite being in a place consistently flooded with people.
Des Moines Art Center
In Ground Swell, Hopper depicts a catboat occupied by four young men and a woman facing a growing swell. The artist made numerous studies of boats as a child growing up in Nyack, and his passion for seascapes and nautical subjects is noted throughout his oeuvre. Nevertheless, as with many of his works, this painting goes well beyond its role as seascape. Despite what looks to be a clear day, the dark shape of the bell buoy symbolizes impending doom as does the boat's dramatic dip to a nearly 45-degree angle. This painting was produced in Hopper's Cape Cod studio between August and September of 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe. There is some suggestion that it symbolically represents the loss of innocence in the face of an uncertain, ominous future.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Office at Night
Office at Night depicts a woman and a man alone in an office. The woman, ostensibly the secretary, stands at a filing cabinet looking at a piece of paper that seems to have just fallen on the floor. The man at the desk seems oblivious to her. A shaft of light pours in through the window. In the lower left corner of the image there is a typewriter, indicative of functionality and perhaps, the woman's role. Hopper elevates what might be a simple scene of everyday life within an office through an extremely raised angle of perspective. The psychological tension between the figures depicted within the room is achieved through the resultant compression of space which limits the figures' ability to move about.
Several years after the Walker Art Center purchased this painting, Hopper wrote them the following explanation: "The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the "L" train in New York after dark, and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind. My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior." Hopper was a frequent train traveler and was always struck by the slices of life witnessed through passing windows.
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
Hopper's Gas offers a perfect example of the artist's ability to raise a simple subject with no action to that of a psychologically-charged one. Here he depicts a single figure, a lone gas station attendant, within an overall quiet and bleak setting enlivened slightly by the presence of red gas pumps. The insignificance of the figure within the overall effect of the image is clarified by the dramatic treatment of the environs. His use of light alone, spilling across the grounds and illuminating the surrounding space, as well as drawing the viewer beyond the station to a dark mass of trees through the obvious use of linear perspective, emphasize his focus. According to Jo Hopper's record books, this painting depicts a gas station at "late twilight." As she wrote to Hopper's sister Marion, "Ed is about to start a canvas - the effect of night on a gasoline station..." Though many have speculated about the location of the gas station, Hopper claims it was improvised, made up from his memory of a number of similar places. Jo's letter to Marion explains that they drove around looking for lit gas stations at twilight and were sometimes thwarted by the fact that they were often not illuminated until it got much darker. From this correspondence and the painting itself it is understood that Hopper received data from on-site observation, sketching the gas pumps directly and then reimaged the details back in the studio until he felt he'd arrived at the right compositional solution.
Museum of Modern Art
Nighthawks depicts four figures in a sparsely furnished diner at night. A single light source illuminates the interior and spills outward toward the exterior. This work, with its simplicity of setting and dramatic lighting, excellently illustrates Hopper's interest in the themes of alienation, melancholy and ambiguous relationships. None of the four figures in this picture interact with one another and we are given to understand that this is the norm and that we are witnessing an unfolding narrative with limited emotional development. Open-ended narratives of this nature are typical of Hopper and demand the active role of the viewer in completing the story.
Nighthawks is considered the embodiment existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness indicative of modern urban life. While Hopper did not set out to express a particular emotional state in the image, he did acknowledge that: "Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city." The sense of the figures' isolation is heightened by the large window which creates an implicit barrier between the viewer and subjects. The viewers are outsiders, voyeurs, not privy to the real story, but, nevertheless, urged to draw our own conclusions regarding the drama depicted. While mostly devoid of revelatory details, a few familiar objects in this picture, such as the salt and peppershakers, napkin holder, and coffee urns, provide a bit of context. Hopper claimed that the setting was loosely based on a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, in New York. Yet, like most of Hopper's oils, what started as an image of a place became, through his process of executing numerous studies, more a suggestion of that place, a composite of many he knew and the work of his imagination.
The significance of this painting was recognized soon after its completion when The Art Institute of Chicago purchased it for $3,000. Today it is the most requested and sought after image in their collection.
The Art Institute of Chicago
This work was produced late in Hopper's life, when he was nearly 70 years old. Nevertheless it embodies the same themes of existentialism noted throughout his oeuvre, connecting him with the parallel efforts of contemporary artists such as Andrew Wyeth. The latter's exploration of Christina's world shares much of the same sentiment and effect. In Hopper's painting a woman (his wife Jo at age 68), is noted sitting upright on a neatly-made bed, staring out the window. The morning sun streams through the window, raking over the figure and onto the blank wall behind. The artist obscures details of her aging face and figure by a distinct lack of detail; her expression is ambiguous, perhaps pensive, perhaps regretful. As in much of his work, the figure is included to capture a mood or suggest a psychological effect, rather than to serve as the portrait of a specific individual. Beyond embodying dramatic means of delineation noted in other works of early modernism, including stark light, he adopts the window motif in order to add psychological weight, open to varied interpretation, as was done a century earlier by Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich.
Columbus Museum of Art
Second Story Sunlight
This work, focusing on a pair of gabled houses facing the morning sun, offers an excellent example of how Hopper elevated cityscapes to psychological portraits, positively animating the inanimate and injecting it with significance. Two figures sit on the balcony of one of the houses, one a scantily clad young woman perched atop a railing, and the other an elderly woman reading a book. Hopper's wife, Jo, was the model for both figures, as she was for nearly all of those included in his later paintings. As Hopper stated, "I don't think there is any idea of symbolism in the two figures... I was more interested in sunlight on the buildings and on the figures than in any symbolism." Growing up along the banks of the Hudson River with its distinct qualities of light, Hopper became sensitized early in life to what he considered, "a certain elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house." Second Story Sunlight, painted late in his career addresses concerns focused on throughout his lifetime in his quest to render the elusive, shifting character of sunlight, and its suggestive quality. The delineation of the stark white planes of the building facades and those contrasting ones cast in shadow illustrates his efforts toward this goal.
Whitney Museum of American Art