Over 20 years ago, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community posited that Americans were becoming increasingly separated from family and friends and joining fewer organizations than they used to. Social media increased human contact, but these digital interactions proved inadequate substitutes for flesh-and-blood encounters. With its lockdowns and closures of businesses, schools and churches, the COVID pandemic has only deepened this sense of isolation.
Statistics support these observations. For example, in 2020, a Cigna health insurance survey found that three in five Americans described themselves as lonely and “reported feeling left out, misunderstood, and lacking company.”
Heavy social media users feel more isolated than those who visit these sites less often, and members of Gen Z (aged 18-22) scored the highest on the loneliness chart.
Such data has prompted some commentators to declare that America is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness.
Interestingly, the artist who perhaps best captured the essence of American solitude on canvas died nearly 50 years ago.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was shy, rather introverted and a loner. As a boy he was a die-hard reader, a habit that inevitably brings loneliness, and remained a lifelong lover of the printed word. During his three visits to Paris in his twenties, Hopper ignored modernist currents such as Expressionism and Cubism, preferring to forge his own path as a representational painter.
Generally working alone there, he fell in love with the effects of light, studying various works in galleries and noticing how the sunlight fell on the streets and buildings.
After that, Hopper struggled for years to make a name for himself as a painter and made most of his living from commercial art, but as his works attracted the attention of critics and the public, he gained a reputation for silence. “Sometimes talking to Eddie is like throwing a rock down a well,” his feisty wife Jo once remarked, “except it doesn’t boom when it hits the ground.”
Hopper’s fascination with solitude, a hallmark of his lifelong portfolio, is readily apparent in his depictions of lonely men and women. In “Automat”, for example, a woman sits alone at a marble table in a café, with full lips, flushed cheeks, dark eyes, and her face shaded by her yellow felt hat. One hand is bare, the other gloved, as if she wants to quickly drink her coffee and return to the darkness outside, but she stares thoughtfully into her cup. A thought or emotion caught their attention and delayed their departure.
The title Hooper chose for this painting reinforces this sense of loneliness. An Automat was a restaurant that served food and drinks from vending machines, eliminating the need for human labor. Although we see no sign of this automation, the painting’s name underscores the alienation caused by an increasingly mechanized culture, a phenomenon that has influenced much of Hopper’s art.
In “Morning Sun” we find a lonely woman again, this time sitting on a bed staring out of an open window. (The model for this painting, as for almost all of Hooper’s work, was his wife.) The sun bathes her in light, though the woman seems to find little comfort in its warmth. As in Automat, her facial expression is again a study in mystery, encouraging the viewer to guess her thoughts.
With the exception of the bed, the space and walls of this room are devoid of any furniture, pictures, or other decorations, causing viewers to focus their full attention on the woman. Beyond the window we see a brick factory and what looks like a water tower, again signs of industrialization and a mechanized culture.
Does she work in the factory? Does the contrast between the sunlit human figure and the factory with its row of uniformly black windows send a message? Again, we take what we want from the image.
Alone with others
Even some of Hopper’s paintings, in which two or more people appear together, reflect a vision of souls confined to themselves, of moments when the sitters seem to have reached an impasse as to what to say, or forget the people around them.
In Hopper’s 1940 play Office at Night, the story is again ambiguous. A secretary is standing next to a filing cabinet, half-turned to her employer, who is sitting at his desk reviewing some documents. A paper on a chair and another on the floor seem to indicate they’re working hard, but what are this spirited woman’s intentions? Is she asking her boss a question, looking at the document he’s engrossed in, or is she engrossed in him?
In her book Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist, Gail Levin notes the “obvious psychological tension between the curvaceous woman and the man who ignores her,” but also adds that Hopper herself stated that the painting had “nothing obvious we will tell anecdotes, because none are intended.”
Together with others
People mingle in some of Hopper’s images, but again, a sense of separation breaks through the scene. In “Hotel Lobby,” a plush elderly couple appears to be deep in conversation in the lobby, perhaps waiting for a cab before going out for the evening.
Across the room sits a young blonde, engrossed in a book. The pair stand in shadow while a brighter light illuminates the reader. The wide green stripe of the carpet creates a separation between them. Furthermore, the lightness and maturity of the older couple stands in sharp contrast to the girl’s unintentional sensuality.
His most famous painting, Nighthawks, often cited as an example of Hopper’s focus on isolation, places the viewer on a sidewalk and peering through a cafe’s curved glass window. Four people are sitting in it, a man is sitting alone at the counter with his back to the viewer, a couple – the man is wearing a hat, coat and tie, the red-haired woman is wearing a red dress – and a cashier.
This second man and the cafe clerk appear to be deep in conversation while the woman is distracted and perhaps looking at her fingernails. As with so much of his work, light plays a major role in the drama of the painting. The lone man sitting on the edge is shrouded in shadow; The couple and the counterman are more brightly lit.
The dialogue of sunlight and shadow
Hopper is also known for his paintings of houses and other buildings, and here too the interplay of light and shadow invites the viewer to draw conclusions from the canvas.
The countryside near our main thoroughfares is dotted with old houses built before the advent of cars and expressways. Some of these are relics of days gone by, abandoned and lost, slowly falling apart. Others stand in defiant finery, maintained by their owners despite four lane intrusion and speeding traffic.
One of his best-known paintings, Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” shows us such a mansion. With a railway track in the foreground, this once beautiful house with its columns and concave garret has some open windows, leading us to believe the house is occupied, but the light and shadows give the property a sense of decay, as does it the case is location. The eerily pale colors of the sky seem to swallow up the little bit of blue in the upper right corner of the painting, as if to signal the downfall of the structure and the natural world.
Most critics agree that Hopper’s buildings, like his people, reflect a sense of alienation and loneliness.
The heart and mind of the viewer
Readers unfamiliar with Edward Hopper’s work may be thinking, “There is enough sadness and loneliness in the world without looking for it in a painting.”
That’s a perspective.
But we can also approach Hopper in other ways. Those used to solitude and spending a lot of time alone can find beauty in these paintings. You can even find meanings that defy critical analysis.
“Nighthawks”, for example, is generally regarded as a portrait of modern day alienation or loneliness. The demure Hopper himself hinted at this interpretation, but some might see this brightly lit café on a dark city street as an oasis of warmth and comfort.
Then there are the individuals who are deep in their own thoughts or activities, like the woman in “Automat” or the reader in “Compartment C. Auto.” We may see such imagery as expressions of loneliness, but anyone who has observed a reader hunched over a book in a café may have noticed the sometimes ethereal beauty present in that engrossed face, a calm exterior that might evoke a hurricane hidden by thoughts and emotions.
And finally, Hopper’s work sends a powerful message to our own age of alienation, digital or otherwise. By underlining this state of affairs in his work, he not only reveals a troubled culture, but perhaps encourages us to go a step further and try to break the shackles of this alienation.