Why do we always feel the need to be surrounded by people? Why do we always need someone’s approval to feel good about ourselves? Why do we have to think or behave in a determined way to belong? We have a constant fear of being considered outcasts, and we’re told since we’re children that we have to be part of society. But what’s so horrible about not belonging? Is there a beautiful side to being an outcast? American painter Edward Hopper seems to have a positive answer to this last question through his many paintings that delve into the human nature of isolation and alienation. He once said, regarding the lack of communication in many of his paintings, that “it’s probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don’t know. It could be the whole human condition.”
Summer Interior (1909)
Eleven A.M. (1926)
Born in 1882, Hopper is considered to be one of the most important American artists of all time and the main representative of realism in his country. His unique style and themes, exploring that loneliness ingrained in us, merged with iconic and yet random places, invite the spectator to meditate on their own experiences, their own struggle with loneliness, and their sense of belonging. But how did he end up working on this theme during most of his prolific career? It comes down to artistic style, interest, and his own experiences in life.
Two on the Aisle (1927)
Hotel Room (1931)
Hopper was born into a middle-class family who encouraged him to pursue an artistic career. He attended the New York School of Art, and then decided to move to Paris, the Mecca of art at the turn of the century, in order to get more acquainted with the realist current of the late nineteenth century with important representatives like Courbet. Little did he know that it would be Monet and Renoir’s Impressionist style what would shape his career. He was fascinated by their use of light and construction around it, which would become one of his most famous signatures as an artist.
Room in Brooklyn (1932)
Sheridan Theatre (1937)
Compartment Car (1938)
In 1910, after a life-changing trip, he returned to America for good. His art changed, and so did he, turning his time in France into one of his art’s main axes. However, he didn’t reach the immediate success he had envisioned for his return. Still, he continued working hard in creating a unique and innovative art that would innovate what had been already made. At the time, the Ashcan school, a movement focusing on the portrayal of realist scenes of everyday life in New York, was getting a lot of recognition. Hopper, instead of just replicating the motifs and styles of the movement, decided to transform it into something new. So, instead of portraying the crazy and crowded life of the city, he took the main urban landscapes and focused on placing alienated characters there as a way of illustrating the loneliness of living in a big city.
New York Movie (1939)
High Noon (1949)
He took iconically and yet really common places in America like diners, hotels, gas stations, movie theaters, and drug stores, and created average characters the audience could relate to. Most of his scenes lack of many details, which is thought to be not only a matter of expressing that loneliness by showing empty spaces, but also a narrative technique to invite the viewer to imagine and create the story of each of these characters and perhaps relate to them in an introspective process to analyze our own social anxieties.
Summer in the City (1950)
Cape Cod Morning (1950)
Morning Sun (1952)
Another interesting aspect of Hopper’s art is his use of bright colors, combined with neutral, warm, and cold hues to convey a particular mood to his characters and landscapes. Unlike what we could think, based on our experience with art, for him, vibrant and bright colors aren’t necessarily a method to convey sadness or other emotions considered to be negative. On the contrary, what that brightness represents is the noise and chaos of the city contrasting with the opaque hues used to portray that alienation and desolation of his characters.
Office in a Small City (1953)
Hotel Window (1955)
Sunlights in Cafeteria (1958)
In the same way, the huge spaces are also an exteriorization of the emotional state of these individuals. Moreover, one common interpretation when it comes to Hopper’s contrasts of urban and rural American life is that he’s also commenting on the rapid growth of the country. This, despite the fact that it promotes population growth and movement, ends up increasing that sense of alienation in a reality where people are following their own ambitions and goals. At the end of the day, the crowds and the noise end up being artificial props in a reality that, instead of letting us be free, confines us more and more every day.
Intermission (detail) (1963)
Chair Car (1965)
Edward Hopper’s paintings of lonely, alienated characters that are also social outcasts are a reflection of each one of us because, at the end of the day, no matter how many friends we have, or people around us, there’s an ingrained sense of loneliness within us all. That’s the beauty of Hopper’s paintings, that they appeal to something inside us that we constantly fight to conceal.
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