31 March 2020

Edward Hopper (died 1967) and coronavirus (2020)

An important influence on American Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was Robert Henri; he taught the young artist at the New York School of Art from 1900. Robert Henri was part of the Ashcan School of American realist painters, and was dedicated to an unsentimental depiction of New York.

Hopper’s paintings created a space in which the viewer’s own inner life could be examined. Hopper’s paintings invited the viewer to ask: When we look at someone, what exactly were we looking at? Reflections of ourselves, our desires, dreams and worries? Hopper’s work cont­inued to mesmerise because it explored these fund­amental questions.

Modern life was not sociable, Hopper said. Cold plate-glass wind­ows, tall buildings where people lived in self-contained flats, isolated petrol stations – the fabric of modern cities created solitude. With his quiet cityscapes and isolated figures, this New Yorker made solitude his theme. In the 1920s, while the flap­p­ers danced and drank, Hopper painted people who probably had never been invit­ed to a party. While weekday shops were busy, Sunday (1926) shops and streets were empty.

Automat, 1927
Des Moines Art Center in Iowa

Girl at Sew­ing Mach­ine, 1921

The Hotel Room, 1931

Sunday, 1926
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Now Jonathan Jones suggested that the ongoing cor­ona­virus pand­emic has given Hopper’s work a new significance. I wish I had thought of this connection myself. In 2020 our TVs and news web­sites have presented views of mandated isolation at home, closed shops and largely empty streets. In a time of world pand­emic, we now all exist “as if we were inside an Edward Hopper paint­ing”. The current pandemic has carefully distan­ced each of us from each other, sitting at our lonely windows over­look­ing a very quiet city.

Unlike in the pre-modern world, inter-war images of solitude were rarely und­erstood as “serene”. Hopper’s message was that life in the inter-war years could be very lonely, and not at all serene. In the early 1920s, Hop­per painted his first so-called Window Paintings: Girl at Sew­ing Machine (1921), New York Interior (1921) and Moonlight Interior (1923). They showed a figure near a win­d­ow, viewed as gaz­ing out onto the street or from the outside looking in. Hopper's solitary figures were mostly women, semi-clad, reading, staring out a window, or keeping busy.

Everything in a Hopper’s interiors was full of meaning that pushed the narrative. Even small details, like a simple suitcase, book or bed, were really important. Hopp­er’s figures were often peer­ing in windows or out to the land­scape. So the window created the possib­ility of another existence outside, showing both alienation and hopefulness.

What was it about Hopper’s melancholy that seemed so familiar? Notice that none of the people in Hopper’s art seemed capable of smiling. The subject of the painting Automat (1927) depicted a lone woman staring into her coffee in an automat at night. Despite the vivid colours, the painting Automat re-emphasised her solitude.

A painting like Night Windows (1928), which put the viewer in a flat looking across at a woman bending over in the room opposite, might have been seen as naughty. But Hopper un­derst­ood it as depicting the difficulty of connecting with others. It was as much a picture of our own sense of isolation (and Hopper’s) as it was a picture of a vulnerable lone woman.

The Hotel Room (1931) re-em­ph­asised the solitude. The spare vertic­al and diagonal bands of colour and sharp electric shad­ows created a concise, intense drama at night. 

Nighthawks, 1942
Art Institute of Chicago

Social isolation in the time of a pandemic,
Canberra Times, 2020

Examine Nighthawks (1942), one of Hopper's group paintings that showed customers sitting at the counter of an all-night eatery in Greenwich Village. The images of lone individuals in imper­sonal spaces, with eyes gazing from windows or down at their drinks, reminded us that isolation was human­ity’s default state. The view­point was from the footpath, as if the viewer was approaching the restaurant. The diner's harsh electric light set it apart from the dark night out­side, enhancing the mood. Despite the longing that appeared in Hop­per’s paintings, his relevance endured. Even in 2020.

Even an exciting city didn’t remedy is­ol­ation; rather it heightened it. The apparent simplicity of the paintings, the very lack of details, invited the spectator to comp­l­ete the image by speculating on past and future, on the relation­ships between the characters and on the anx­ieties provoked. Perhaps this was why voyeurism was an overused term in Hopper critic­ism.

As in many Hopper paintings, the interaction between models in Nighthawks was min­imal. I have lived in my house since 1982 (38 years) and say hel­lo to everyone on the street each day. Today, as I walked on my routine path, people crossed over to the nature strip, to avoid accidental closeness. Not a single smile or hello en route!

Of course Hopper couldn’t have predicted our current worldwide pandemic, but he described the social consequen­ces of our virus a century ago. The loss of direct human contact is not easy today – our elderly parents are at risk of not getting nursing care, uni­versity and high school stud­ents are missing lectures, and marr­iages are put under stress.

Nowadays, if we sit alone in cafes, we’ve at least got mobile phones to make us feel connect­ed. Since retiring from work 15 months ago, I too used that tech­nique. But the truth is that modernity has thrown up urban life­styles that are totally cut off from normal sociab­il­ity. When the pleasures of modern life are removed, for any reason (eg retirement, divorce, pand­em­ic), loneliness remains.

 In the coronavirus era, we all hope to defy Hopper’s hard vision of alien­ated individuals and instead survive “as a community”. But how ironic is it that we have to survive by self-isolation!

"We're all in this together, we're all in this together...." Probably not (:


Joseph said...

Very timely. Did Hopper refer to the Spanish Flu in his work?

bazza said...

Even though Hopper was a very fine painter, his acute social realism is what has made his work stay popular all of this time. He really had something powerful to say. I feel that the difference between now and one hundred years ago is that loneliness can, at least partially, be moderated by the kind of interconnectedness that is available; I mean social media, telephone, email etc. We have a weekly family meeting at 5pm every Sunday through Zoom and lots of other interaction. My older sister is a widow and her daughter and grandchildren live opposite her but she only sees them through a window!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s knowingly knackered Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Edward Hopper travelled to Europe often before the First World War and became close to the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Gustav Klimt etc. He was acutely aware of the deaths of August Macke, Franz Marc, Egon Schiele, Isaac Rosenberg, Guillaume Apollinaire and Klimt etc etc, either from war wounds or from the 1918 pandemic. And he was surrounded by the flu at home.

Hels said...


Yes I agree that social media, telephone and email today are infinitely more workable now than weekly letters were for our grandparents in the 1920s. But social isolation cuts out more than coffee mornings, golf games for the fellows every Sunday afternoon or dinner with the grandchildren every Friday night. I have found that the last three weeks have produced lethargy, forgetfulness and reduction in the ability to concentrate.

Imagine if the social isolation continued for months :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Hopper's paintings produce the same effect of isolation even when there are no people in them--perhaps even more so. His famous House by the Railroad shows an empty-looking house, while the life that is not in evidence in the house seems equally lacking no matter in which direction the tracks lead. Actually, the idea of quiet isolation does not bother me that much, in fact rather appeals to me, especially today with telephones, internet, media, etc. Just today I was listening to the recordings of the wonderful British oboist Neil Black, who I just discovered died in 2016. He had been awarded the OBE, which seems especially fitting for an oboe player.

Hels said...


thanks for the House by the Railroad (1925) reference. I knew that isolation could make human beings lonely but Hopper's painting showed that landscapes and architecture could be bleak and lifeless as well. Not a blade of grass, not a tree to be seen :(

Throughout history there have always been people who tolerated quiet isolation well, or even preferred it. But in this coronavirus era, I am guessing that lots of recently unemployed people badly miss the company of family, friends and particularly workmates. Even a beloved dog would be good.

mem said...

oh dear , I had been thinking and still do think that perhaps one of the silver linings that come out of this will be a sense of our need for each other . That we will be honestly able to look at each other and say I need my interaction with you without feeling that we are a lesser being .I think that to admit loneliness in the past has been seen as a failure . This is reinforced by social media depictions of success on Instagram etc. Maybe this pandemic will help us to "get real" at least fro a while. I walk my dog in Brunswick and notice that there are more people on their front verandas at least there were when the sun was out . I made a point of smiling and saying hello , helped along by my bouncy bundle of joy miss Peppa.
I am still at work and telling clients to call each other . They are missing the social interaction of the exercise groups we run and just maybe this new vulnerability will help us all tto get real with each other and be truly kind to each other .
These paintings are amazing and I have very much enjoyed reading your explanation of them . I always enjoys your posts they expand my view of the world . I am scared of retiremennt though . I love the structure of my work .

Dazed said...

In her book The Lonely City, writer Olivia Laing recounted her brief stint living alone in New York. To her surprise, she found herself surrounded by more people than ever before, yet far more lonely. She began to ask larger life questions; the frightening existential ones we try to not dwell on when scrolling mindlessly through social media or memes of cute cats. Like, what does it mean to be lonely?

The person who visualised the acute alienation she felt was the American realist painter Edward Hopper – despite the fact that he died over half a century ago and lived in an entirely different era of history.

"How artist Edward Hopper became the poster boy of quarantine culture"
Lydia Figes
20th March 2020

Hels said...


You have good reason to be worried about retirement. After being hard working and responsible for 45 years, you suddenly find yourself with a lot of free time on your hands. Pandemic aside, don't think of retiring until you book a weekly gym session, restart your blog or create a new one, volunteer for your favourite non-profit organisation, go to one Adult Education course each term and plan a weekly coffee session with like-minded colleagues.

The pandemic has shown us how difficult empty days and lonely weekends can be. Hopper was an insightful man!

Hels said...


Great article, thank you. The title re Hopper being the poster boy for quarantine culture has become very appropriate .. very quickly.

mem said...

yes I hope you get by Helen, you seem to me to someone who needs intellectual stimulation every day and graciously give to those of us who read your blog . Part of my work is running strength training classes for older people . I love it , these people are my social contacts over the week of work .I cant believe how lucky I am to have a job that allows me to get paid fro exercising and also allows me to get to know such a delightful group of people and help them to achieve what they want to. I find that work gives me a great sense of meaning . Its the loss of that meaning that worries me the most.

Hels said...


A person is very lucky to find work that gives a great sense of meaning. Not everyone does, of course.

After I retired, I was invited to give speeches each week to care homes residents about art, jewellery and antiques. It was fantastic because the older residents knew so much about the inter-war era.

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Hels said...

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Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - interesting about Hopper's paintings ... but I can see what you write about. It is tough now - we are all individuals, who usually crave company at least sometimes during the day ... those who were lonely before, sadly are in a worse situation today.

We should all be in it together ... but it will be interesting to see how this pans out - I just hope it's not months ... we could have another baby boom?! Take care - Hilary

Hels said...


It will be very interesting to see how this pans out, yes!

Will the survivors of coronavirus all be depressed, impoverished, unfit and incapable of re-establishing close social bonds? Or will we bounce back with warmer, more loving families and friendship groups, and a more intense loyalty to full time employment. Will alcohol consumption go up? Might there be another baby boom as you note, as there was after WW2?

If any nation didn't have universal health care before coronavirus, will they change immediately after the pandemic ends?

Andrew said...

It's a good parallel, if that is the right word. It is a bit hard here to cross to the other side of the street but people are sticking to the edges of the wide paths and suddenly everyone seems to know to stick to the left hand side of the path. I assume you are talking about one very large country and its health care system. I can't see that happening.

Hels said...


Have you noticed that extreme right wing governments have been bringing in policies that they would NEVER have allowed, had it not been for the pandemic. Imagine protecting tenants from eviction if they cannot pay their rents! Or allowing ordinary citizens to go into private hospitals? Or allowing foreign students to stay in the country until universities and schools open again?

What a shame thousands of people had to be infected and die, before right wing governments understand community needs :(