“Edward Hopper painted very lonely people.”
Grandmother to grandkids, April 2015
Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, CT
Solitude. Isolation. Loneliness. The ghost of Edward Hopper scoffs. Rumor has it that the American realist detested stories invented by critics to narrate his paintings: despairing women, guilty men, urbanites ensnared in trysts. In the artist’s words, “The loneliness thing is overdone. It formulates something you don’t want formulated.”
Not to discredit the sweet older woman explaining art to her grandchildren on the third floor of Yale’s Art Gallery. Loneliness so often comes up when discussing Hopper’s work that his images are practically synonymous with the emotion. And the wistful ache we feel when viewing his art cannot be denied. It makes you wonder why the artist himself was such a denier. After all, he was a big fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who died three months before Hopper’s birth in 1882. Emerson equated solitude with cultivating selfhood, the “acting and thinking conducted within the self.” As he lectured to the young men of Dartmouth College in 1838, “Inspiration makes solitude anywhere.” This wasn’t meant to be negative.
It’s interesting to think about how we interact with Hopper’s paintings in tandem with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building, which opened its doors in downtown Manhattan earlier this month. (Hopper showed in the first Whitney Annual in the 1930s and continued to exhibit there for the rest of his life; their collection boasts a staggering amount of his work.) According to architect Renzo Piano, the Whitney’s design—spanning 50,000 square feet of indoor galleries and 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space—focuses on communal gathering. Reflecting on visitors’ views through the building entrance and the large windows that overlook the Hudson River, Piano writes, “Here, all at once, you have the water, the park, the powerful industrial structures and the exciting mix of people, brought together and focused by this new building and the experience of art.” The museum houses classrooms, theaters, and study centers—for the Whitney, all firsts. Roberta Smith notes in the New York Times that the effect is hospitable and embraces a priority “to accommodate art and people with equal finesse.”
As institutions like the Whitney and Yale’s teaching museum continually increase efforts to bring people together, to help us learn about art and one another through shared experiences, work like Hopper’s reminds us of the private nature of looking. Meditating on art, it’s possible to feel entranced, lost in thought, alone in a busy room, even in spaces designed to promote conversation. Maybe Hopper’s art is less about the loneliness of his subjects and more about that of his viewers: how we look at and respond to the work personally. Perhaps the remoteness we feel in his subjects is the sense of self as unique, singular, and—here’s Emerson—cultivated. Only in knowing ourselves can we know others.
Why did this stranger in the Gallery emphasize loneliness? This was the only thing she said about Western Motel to her two young listeners, their parents standing nearby. Then the family grew quiet as they watched the painting’s pulsing colors and light. Western Motel was painted late in Hopper’s career, in the 1950s, when he was exploring the new motels sprouting like lupines along American highways. “You know how beautiful things are when you are traveling,” he said at the time.
The woman in Western Motel is Hopper’s only subject to make eye contact with the viewers. She watches us watching her. The artist’s wife, Jo, modeled for practically all of his female figures, and I’m going to guess that she posed for this one. When this painting was made she would have been 74 years old; Hopper’s vision was singular as any.
Hopper may have captured poses of solitude, but we too are alone in what we see, even as we stand together and view the same thing. To what extent is color a fact, for example, and to what extent is it in our minds? We will never fully understand how our neighbors see color, and never fully explain to them how we see it. How do you describe why red is red, why truth is true?
This past winter, the public was captivated by a photograph of a dress and shared it online in droves. Some saw white and gold fabric, some black and blue. Debate raged nationwide. My husband and I stared at the same screen and failed to reconcile what the other saw. (For the record, it’s still white to me.) If seeing is believing, then that optical argument shook beliefs to the core. Inside our own eyes and brains, we’re the only ones who know how we see. It is personal and intimate, and, yes, it’s lonely.
There’s a loneliness in looking at Hopper’s work—at any work—that extends beyond narrative. And isn’t this what makes viewing art so intoxicating? No one else will see it the way you do. Even in a crowded museum, your relationship with the painting is yours alone.
Eavesdrop is a series where I listen to what people say while they look at art. And then I write about it.