Soir Bleu, 1914, Oil on Canvas, 36” x 72” (1.4 x 182.9cm) WhitneyMuseum of AmericanArt, New York, NY, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest
I began this blog some nine months ago with Edward Hopper for no better reason than I was using his painting The Automat as my desktop wallpaper and I was fascinated by the choices he had made in designing the picture. As of yesterday it remains the most regularly visited of all my columns, so I must either accept that I have steadily grown less interesting since last October, or there is something about Hopper that attracts readers more than other artists. Maybe he is the gateway drug for serious art junkies, inviting us into the fine arts with his deceptively simple renderings of Americana, of street corners and gas stations, of diners and quiet Sunday mornings, and of women, so many lonely women standing in doorways and at windows, waiting.
Edward Hopper was a very serious man, a man who knew exactly what he wanted to do and why. When you look at his studies, pencil drafts of planned artworks, you see a man who has thought through every minuscule color choice before he has even lifted the brush. Soir Bleu is from his years in Paris, toward the end when he was beginning to question his own future. This is a painting of personal doubt which ironically sings with the growth and maturity his studies in Paris gave him; it might be the work that announced to the rest of the world, watch out, something big is coming to town.
There is a tradition in European visual art of using the clown as a symbol for the artist himself. Here we have a clown who is as out of place in this scene as a geisha in a bowling alley. I have read essays which maintain that the figures in this painting are each in their own little world, ignoring each other, but that is not at all what it looks like to me. I believe the gentleman and his lady to the right are obviously annoyed. They are posh and dignified, and this clown is not welcome in their company. We cannot tell the reactions of the two gentlemen at the clown’s table, but as the fellow on the right seems by the tilt of his head and his proximity to be a companion to the gentleman on the left, and since the clown is studiously ignoring them, we can presume they, too, are separate from the clown, that he has somehow plonked himself into the middle of their little world. The standing lady looks down her nose at the scene, haughty and disapproving. To the far left a small man sits alone, completely oblivious to everyone else around him, unconcerned.
It doesn’t take a shrink to sense the young painter’s disillusion. The couple on the right, the moneyed class on whom he will most depend for his living if he carries on as an artist, are openly hostile. His “companions” at the table, are other artists who have already formed their cliques and schools from which he feels a perpetual outsider. The haughty woman represents the aristocracy of art critics and professionals whose sole reason for being is to find others wanting. Lastly is the small man to the left, the hoi polloi, the vast mundane world of working people who could give a fig for the artist’s lot in life.
Hopper was a natural storyteller, and part of the beauty of his work is imagining the stories just beyond the figures in his art. I think he appeals to us more than many other American artists for that very reason, the notion that there are real lives beneath those daubs of paint. Too, I suspect that the middle years of the last century in which most of his more famous paintings were rendered carry an extra emotional charge, partly because of the enormous shared culture the movies of that period bring us, and partly because there is a simplicity in the day-to-dayness of those pieces which we fear we may have lost forever.
Early Sunday Morning, 1930, Oil on Canvas, 35” x 60” (88.9 x 152.4cm) WhitneyMuseum ofAmerican Art
For instance here: this is one of his most famous pictures, an ordinary street on a Sunday morning. Where today will we find this scene? People must be doing. People must be shopping. There is that goad, constant and compelling that you must be up and at it. Get the kids to their soccer match, their T-ball game, their gym. Don’t slow down whatever you do, don’t slow down. Do that and you might have to think for a minute; do that and you might have to talk to someone.
Hopper’s clown is out on a blue night, and he is just a little bit sad, but it will not last. Soon the clown will rouse himself. Something big really is coming to town. He will lead the circus parade right into the sleepy little Sunday morning village that is American art and we will all sit back in amazement and wonder at the lions and the tigers and the elephants and the flying women. And in the cool of a summer evening the clown without his make-up will pitch his woo to the home town girl on some plain summer porch, and he will leave her a little sadder and a little happier, and she will never once look back but that she doesn’t smile, just a little.
And she will never, ever tell a soul.
Summer Evening, 1947, Oil on Canvas, 24” x 29” (76.2 x 106.7cm) WhitneyMuseum of American Art