“If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Happy Birthday, Edward Hopper

I wrote about Edward Hopper quite a bit in my Present Tense column at Film Comment, detailing the Hopper-y vibe of Tom Noonan’s great film about urban loneliness, What Happened Was… In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Karen Sillas’ deep-rose-colored dress might be inspired by this painting. Her apartment is all windows, too, in the movie.

I love the loneliness in Edward Hopper’s work. The insomnia. The urban midnights. The voyeurism. The emptiness. If you’re heartbroken, Hopper is your kindred spirit. I find his paintings very sad, sadness you can wallow in. Many (most?) people do what they can to avoid loneliness. I have never been able to pull it off. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Living in a major metropolitan area, you are constantly up against other people’s lives. People have private moments in public. You can peek into people’s windows as you walk by. You give each other privacy as best you can. People can weep on the subway, and nobody freaks out. Everyone clams up, goes into their own private head-space, and the weeping person may as well be in her own room for all the attention she gets. Believe me: having been that weeping person, there’s a comfort in anonymity. There is nothing quite like the freedom to be left alone.

At the same time, there is the sense of being privy to other people’s secrets. There are just so many damn windows. How do other people live? How are they managing?

Sometimes, if you’re alone, and feeling your alone-ness acutely … seeing glimpses of other people living their lives, through windows, connects you to something human. Reminds you you are a human being, you are real. It doesn’t eradicate loneliness. The kind of loneliness I’m talking about can’t be eradicated. I wonder if there are some people who have never felt loneliness like that. Loneliness that literally wakes you up at nights. Like Laing writes in her great book The Lonely City, where Edward Hopper is featured prominently, loneliness like that is like being hungry.

I found a really wonderful article about Edward Hopper’s paintings of movie theatres.

Hopper evokes a world gone by, and yet not all that unlike our own. People are people, no matter the era.

I have been all of these women.

Even when Hopper moves out into the country, the loneliness follows him. Or maybe this is just me projecting. That’s the power of his work. There’s a blankness there somewhere, a nothing-ness, giving great permission to the viewer to place herself into the painting, to see her own life there. Or not. I grew up in a beach town. My first kiss was on a foggy beach. The ocean is the background to most of my childhood memories. So I look at these two, and yes, I wonder what they might be talking about, but I also wonder if they aren’t talking at all, if they are just listening to the sound of the lonely surf breaking on the beach below?

“Maybe I am slightly inhuman … All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” — Edward Hopper

Terrence Malick knew his Hopper, that’s for sure.

So does Tommy Lee Jones.

Only Edward Hopper could turn a gas station into an image piercingly sweet and sad. Pungent and poetic. I don’t feel like analyzing why. These are feelings that hurt, not particularly pleasant, but they’re familiar. I’ve had them since I was very very young, before I understood anything about love and loss. It’s a human-inheritance kind of thing.

As I observed in the article linked at the top: one thing to note about his most famous painting: The diner has no door. No way in, no way out.

Loneliness is not pleasant. People go to mad extremes to avoid being lonely; it’s that excruciating an experience. Loneliness has ruined long stretches of my life. I look back and wish to spare myself. But at least I had some company. Edward Hopper had already been there.

Last year, Allison and I went to the stunning Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney. I had been hearing about it for months and watching enviously as friends attended (via their Instagram feeds). Allison and I finally went. And we lost ourselves to the world. What an AMAZING exhibit. Edward Hopper’s New York. It was not just the usual suspects, although I got to see those too. It dug into his early advertising work, lots of that on display – so different! – his sketches – the sketches of “Nighthawks” – and also his relationship with movies/theatres. We wandered around, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were so many people there, which – after the last couple of years we had – did my heart good. People clustering before famous paintings. Edward Hopper’s paintings are stories. You can “read into” them. I ended up talking with two other women about one of the paintings. We talked about what we saw. We read into the behavior. It was so awesome.

Allison and I both saw some Hopper-in-real-life visuals DURING our time there. We weren’t together when we saw these things, but we both noticed and both took pictures, of the exact same thing. We are kindred spirits. See if you can spot them.

I was so excited I got to see that one. ^^

I got full-body goosebumps when I saw that one in person. ^^

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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32 Responses to “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Happy Birthday, Edward Hopper

  1. Susan says:

    I too have lived in Hopper spaces, inner and outer. I admire your writing and your openness. What a compelling voice you have.

    The EH Museum in Nyack is worth a visit if you like Hopper

  2. I am very fond of Hopper’s Ground Swell, which creates the sense of isolation you are writing about here- the boat out on the water, the way none of the people in the boat seem to be connecting with each other…

  3. Brad Hall says:

    Thanks. I’m definitely going to look deeper into Hopper’s work. If you haven’t read it, there’s a great book of short stories called “In Sunlight or In Shadow” inspired by the paintings of Hopper. It features stories by writers like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates.

  4. Arundel says:

    Beautifully written and evocative, as usual Sheila. Hopper really brings that pang somehow, he evokes that feeling of loneliness, even if it’s momentary and fleeting for his subjects, one imagines or hopes. For others of us, it seems as a lifelong feeling. Not fleeting. Love your writings!

    • sheila says:

      // Hopper really brings that pang somehow, he evokes that feeling of loneliness, even if it’s momentary and fleeting for his subjects, one imagines or hopes. //

      Arundel – this is beautifully put. I think about his “characters” often – and wonder what they are thinking about, what might have happened to them.

  5. Todd Restler says:

    Great piece. I know of another movie that was strongly influenced by Hopper!
    I mention it in my piece. No other artist that I know of captures the inherent loneliness of living in a big city.


  6. Todd Restler says:

    You’re too kind! Thanks Sheila. I was not aware of a Hopper museum in Nyack but now must go!

  7. Such a great quote. Reminds me too of Flannery O’Connor. What asked if she would sum up what a story meant, she said, “I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there’s only one way to tell it and that’s the way it is told in the story.”

  8. Larry Aydlette says:

    Hopper is my favorite painter, but I now find it to be s romantic loneliness, perhaps because his paintings are so of their time because of the clothes and other period details. I once goofed around with attaching lyrics to Hopper paintings. I always thought Thunder Road perfectly fit those two people on the porch at dusk.

  9. Barb says:

    I often think of Hopper’s work in terms of formality. There’s an odd sense of geometry to his colors, his shadows, his planes–like all the rectangles that isolate his usher in the movie theater from the audience and the movie experience. They frame the private, glimpsed moments for the viewer– and I agree, Sheila, these images ache.

    Bruce Springsteen is a great parallel. So is Norman Bates.

    • sheila says:

      I love how in The Automat, the reflections of the ceiling lights go off into infinity.

      His work is not “realistic” – like, if you look at how the light falls on the walls, often it’s clear that the light source would never make the light fall that way – there’s something “off” about it. It’s all about a mood, a destabilized mood.

      and good point about the usher and all those rectangles of separation.

  10. Bill Wolfe says:

    I agree with Barb about the geometry of Hopper’s work. You could turn one of his paintings upside down and it would still be beautiful for, as she said, “odd sense of geometry to his colors, his shadows, his planes.”

    If Sinclair Lewis captured the claustrophobia of 19th century small town America, then Hopper defined the isolation of 20th century urban living. It must have been startling, when those paintings were new, for people to recognize their lives in those works.

    • sheila says:

      // It must have been startling, when those paintings were new, for people to recognize their lives in those works. //

      So true!

  11. Donna L Thomas says:

    When the MOMA was being remodeled around 1o years ago, they allowed many of their more famous paintings to go on tour. I was lucky enough to see the best of MOMA in Houston. The wife and I brought our teenage son and were thrilled to see so many great pieces of art. At nearly the end of the show, I came around a corner and saw, New York Theater 1939 for the first time. I have never had a painting take my breath away like this one did and I have been obsessed with trying to see as many Hoppers as I can ever since. I love your description of his work.

  12. Anne O’Hearn says:

    I happened upon your site today by way of searching for a song from childhood that my sister just sang to me over the phone (“Star of the day, who will it be”…she had all the words right! We grew up in a small town in eastern NH a few miles from the ocean and UHF Channel 56 was obligatory after school and weekend watching.) With that ear worm now in my head, I looked around…and like very much what I see. I will explore more, thank you for sharing your site on the internet so curious passers-by like me can admire your work, your thoughts, your life.
    On Hopper: for me, any of his work invokes that tangible core loneliness, which can be so crippling. But I always see a glimmer of hope, that the “sunlight on the wall” is coming, that the kiss on the porch is a moment away, that the door to the diner is just out of frame with the OPEN sign still illuminated, so you can go in and give in to the loneliness with other people, or leave and continue your life.

  13. I love that Hopper quote! It’s exactly the same point Flannery O’Connor made when somebody asked if she would explain to a studio audience what Wise Blood was about, and she said “I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there’s only one way to tell it and that’s the way it is told in the story.”

  14. Regina Bartkoff says:

    What a gorgeous post about one of my all time favorite painters!
    Everything down to the tiniest detail of what you wrote just resonated with me.
    “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”
    Yes! The reason I’m not a fan of conceptual work is there is always this big long explanation next to it which is always more interesting to read then seeing the actual work. A friend once took me to a show of conceptual work knowing how I feel and she said, “just be open to it!” Walking around, I’m thinking okay, and I tried, hating one thing after another, till I said, oh stop it, give it a chance. So I stood in front of something for a while that looked like everything else till I realized it was a wall socket and I started laughing hysterically at myself. My friend was so pissed off, “you are being really annoying!” I don’t want everything explained to me either. I want to feel. And as a painter I hate explaining my own work. I don’t even know myself sometimes till after it comes out and I welcome any ones thoughts on it which may be quite different from what I was possibly expressing.
    But Hopper is The Master!
    I have on my walls The Usher in the theatre. I mean, that is me! In life, but somehow separated from it, and so tired! waiting. I stare long at it, all the time.
    And the he girl in the blue chair looking out the window, next to my window that I look out of.. And one of his final heartbreaking pieces, ‘Bowing Out’. Sheila, that is Claire and Felice!
    “I have been all these women.”
    I knew these feelings too like you said when I was young, “before I knew anything about love and loss.”
    Yes. Where this knowledge comes from I don’t know. But I knew what it felt like to be left out and different.
    Just everything you wrote. My favorite pastime is walking down Manhattan streets looking into people’s windows! People openly crying on the subways. Not long ago a young pretty girl was weeping openly across from me. No one was noticing but me. I felt like putting my arms around her and saying, “It’s going to be ok.” And I thought, yeah, then she’s going to punch you in the face!
    And Hitchcock’s fantastic use of Hopper too!
    Also the ocean for me too, growing up near Rockaway with relatives out in Coney. The ocean is where I’m most happiest. I love the painting where the ocean is right outside the door, I want to live there!
    I love Hopper!

  15. Kim says:

    I’m reminded of a pre-shutdown story on NPR by Susan Stamberg-


    The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond built a 3-D replica of a Hopper painting. You could stay overnight for $150. I don’t see it on the website any longer, another casualty of the pandemic.

  16. Gina in alabama says:

    Your Block Island posts just resonate Hopper to me. Still hoping, wistfully, for a book and photographs. Until you create it, i will keep it in my mind.

  17. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, thought of him when I wrote to the NYT about an article they published on extroverts and introverts. I remembered this piece of yours, too, and found it a few days later. And here it is again! Magic. Especially love the door with the sunlight. I ache for his people, but somehow smile at the door. Here is the letter:

    Melissa Sutherland
    Keene, NH June 13
    Some people have trouble believing I am introverted. Raised in the Foreign Service, I learned very early to converse with almost anyone. It involved active listening and almost no engagement. Have I enjoyed retirement and the pandemic? More than you know. What I look forward to: eating out again, with a book, surrounded by people but not having to engage. I’ve always hated phones, so I welcomed email. I am not shy, and I do understand the difference. I have never been lonely. I never married and have lived alone most of my life. Working in Manhattan for thirty year, I found jobs where I could be alone: proofreading, word processing, fact checking, copy editing. When this didn’t work, I was miserable. Spent an entire year having to answer phones. It was awful. I found I could be around others as long as I didn’t have to be with others. I’ve made it work for me. I wish everyone could find a level that works for them. Some people will never understand. And that’s okay. As long as they leave me alone.

    So far, 32 recommendations :)

  18. Ivan Gideon Kipkoech says:

    I love your lines.

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