When we discuss art forms indigenous to America, we usually meant to name some genre or sub-genre: jazz, the Western, film noir. Obviously, jazz did not just fall out of a box one day in New Orleans or St. Louis; African musical streams influenced it. But there is nothing like a proper jazz work in Africa’s musical history, so jazz becomes an American conceit despite its far-flung antecedents.
When it comes to American painting, influences are far flung as well, in this case with a pronounced European flavor. They were doing it first; we were doing it later. And then we were both doing it in such a way, mutually aware of the others’ efforts, that even the mid-century Abstract Expressionist era, when America was in the driver’s seat in the art world, was a time when European post-Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Spanish Cubism held a lot of sway. Just by looking at a painting one could not, most of the time, readily identify where it was painted. Except, that is, for the work of Edward Hopper, who was painting 75 years ago as no American was—really, as no one anywhere in the world was. Hopper became a kind of genre unto himself, offering unique if perhaps accidental insight all of these years later into a disconnected world.
Hopper was not a prolific painter; he left us fewer than 400 works in a lengthy career. Born in Nyack, New York, in the summer of 1882, he lived to be 84, with success taking a long time to come, the bulk of it arriving in his 50s. His stuff was simply so different that it took critics a long time to learn how to “see” it. Hopper himself cared enormously about techniques of seeing that were preludes to painting. He was, for example, a movie buff who enjoyed sitting in the balcony for the perspective it gave him.
The long wait for recognition did not amuse the artist. Consequently, as the awards rolled in later in life, Hopper often turned them down to show his resentment over a system that had caused his undue neglect for decades. He had no particular need for critical buzz anyway and no problems with silence. Not surprisingly, then, he loved Ralph Waldo Emerson. The silence proved useful with the subject matter of his work, which flowed in part from his having grown up studying the sea and its rhythms in Nyack, where yachts were built. People in such places come to understand notions of fluidity, movement, pitch, and roll in ways that the non-seafaring do not. For a painter who was going to still movement, if you will, in so many famous canvases, understanding what was being stilled, and how to still it, was crucial.
Nighthawks (1942) is the most famous Hopper painting, the basis for his original meme, if one wishes to be waggish about it. Looking at it now, it doesn’t appear nearly the portrait of loneliness and isolation that it was generally taken to be at the time. We don’t know, for instance, that nothing is being said between these people at this late night diner scene; indeed, the employee seems to be saying something to the man with the woman in the red dress. But there is no question that in 1942, before the momentum of the war had shifted for the better, Nighthawks communicated a kind of dark weariness and quiet compared to normal social interactions.
Arguably, both the people in Nighthawks and those who saw the painting when it was new are far healthier socially than people are today. We don’t sense the same contrast between an abundance of face-to-face normalcy and a scene like the one Hopper painted in Nighthawks. Social media displaces the real with the mediated, and the anonymous. Nowadays emotional schizophrenia reigns for many, who think in terms of Facebook photo-ops instead of spontaneous experience. There is no growth from real human connections, only a photo facsimile of it slapped up, passed around, and above all judged—and presumed judged. It’s all a lot closer to how those four people in Nighthawks seem to relate to one another.
Perhaps one of these diner habitués is killing a couple of hours before getting a morning boat to somewhere. Perhaps the couple talked long after a theater date and need to cap it off over a hot coffee. Maybe the employee felt near to liberation from his shift and looked forward to a piece of breakfast apple pie at sunrise as a reward. These people might not be dancing a quadrille with each other, but this is no depiction of societal fragmentation either.
Hopper’s 1943 Hotel Lobby, on the other hand, does suggest a kind of fragmentation—or rather several kinds. It is therefore more a painting for our times.
There is an episode of the original British version of The Office that is centered on a training day for the workers of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company. These are people who do not find fulfillment in their jobs, in large part because they do not find fulfillment in their lives at all, whether in their friendships, romantic relationships, or career choices. They are imprisoned by a fear of pushing away parameters that they’ve had a hand in erecting. Hence, for this episode, the characters are shot framed within hard lines: the frames of a door, or a window’s edges. And that, precisely, is what Hopper seems to have had in mind with Hotel Lobby.
Painting was becoming ever more nonrepresentational in the United States at the time. Hopper could seem an anachronism with his ever so slightly rigged realism. He exhibited some traits of European portraiture, of a certain vivid scene-catching, but with washed out colors, his anchoring solid lines acting as dividing marks between people in a work like Hotel Lobby.
Hopper loved his windows, and yet none are present here. The viewer is situated in an open door space, or perhaps a porch or foyer that leads into the lobby room depicted. A thin baize carpet directs our eye toward a couple who immediately give us pause, in more ways than one. An older woman is seated in a ruby-red dress, with a black fur wrap and black hat, as if she’s been caught mid-change between a funeral and a night out on the town. Her feet intrude upon the baize rug, which feels like an intrusion upon visual flow, kicking our perspective up to the man standing beside her, presumably her husband, in a suit, coat draped over his arm like someone wishing to go somewhere. There are stairs behind him. They could be waiting for their daughter to come down—who knows?
A still life painting hangs above the woman, mirroring what we perceive—or think we perceive—as the status of this relationship. But the devil—and he’s a good one, in this case—is in the details between these two, which Hopper uses to undercut our first impressions. The woman’s head is cocked in such a way that even from the lower perspective, her gaze is as close to parallel as possible with the man’s. She’s not just sitting in the chair, she’s leaning back in it. They have to wait to leave, for some reason we’re not aware of; they clearly have not been waiting for a long time and seem to be enjoying a nice conversation. How often now do we go to a café or restaurant, look up, and see two people seated at a table together, each staring at their phone? If you’ve never stopped to gauge how common this is, try it. The numbers are staggering.
In a study for the painting, Hopper had included two wall paintings at one point, but the second would have detracted from our focus on this couple, so he dropped it. Their coloring has a certain indefinite smudginess, like the covers of a well-loved, well-thumbed book—a friendly roundness.
Contrastingly, there is the more angular figure of a woman on the other side of the baize carpet, reading her book in a chair placed next to an open chair. Hopper makes her rather sinewy. Her pose is rigid, her muscles tense despite her extended legs, which would normally suggest a degree of relaxation, of being carefree. It is as if she is trying extra hard not to have to look up at the people across from her, or at anything else.
Maybe they were being loud and so were annoying her, but that doesn’t seem to fit with our couple. Hopper has the man standing in part on that baize carpet, too, and it’s obvious that with the verdant color—a very flora-esque color—that the carpet represents some degree of life and its flow. Meanwhile, the woman with her book has a small tile mosaic floor pattern to her right, hugging the shape of the vacant hotel desk. It’s less free and flowing than the carpet, and thus is she associated with that notion of compactness, with a sense of formal rigidity.
The empty chair at her side has been pushed squarely up against hers, too, with no separation between the two, unlike with the chairs on the other side of the lobby. There’s an emptiness present in the unused chair, but a controlled emptiness, sad but not sullen. This is an individual who is making do in her life until she can find that right person to someday have a version of what the two people on the other side of the lobby have. In the meantime, it’s not worth romanticizing them for her. She keeps her head down, reading her book, but as Hopper is gently suggesting here, too much of that leads to losing out on too much else. There is distance in that shading of blue of the woman’s dress. There’s almost too much shouty extroversion in the red of the older woman’s dress, perhaps an overcompensating attempt to appear happier than she is.
Hopper probably served as the model for the man, and the older woman’s fur coat is based on one owned by his wife, Josephine. Not that Hopper was a leering, affair-loving guy, but she insisted anyway on being the female model for all of his relevant paintings. Hopper isn’t judging these people so much as perhaps casting some gentle warning our way: There is a big disconnect between what we often aim to project and what we really are, and if we spend too much energy on the former, we only going segment ourselves—both within, in our relationships, and without, in our place in the wider world.
Hopper could paint electric light with the best of them, but he was even better with natural light. With his urban-scapes you don’t get it quite as often, given their noirish, nighttime settings. But when Hopper was struggling to find himself as a painter, he broke free of some restrictions in his own way, leaving the burgeoning post-Modernist strains behind early in his career to study natural light and the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts, harkening back to those Nyack days. We see that study here in the coppery, large-hearted light Hopper deploys in Hotel Lobby. It is light that is akin to a caring wave of the hand, rather than a grim finger pointing. It also illuminates the whole, reminding us that a hotel is a stop for us in a place that is not ours alone or ours at all, merely a temporary destination from which we return.
Maybe that’s what Hotel Lobby does for us today: It offers an opportunity to pull up a chair besides yesterday’s self and have a new conversation, one that makes it easier to connect with the people on the other side of the room.