Seven Videos Explain How Edward Hopper’s Paintings Expressed American Loneliness and Alienation

Though born in the late 19th cen­tu­ry and par­tial­ly shaped by a few sojourns to Europe, Edward Hop­per was an artist fun­da­men­tal­ly of ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. He took life in that time and place as his sub­ject, but he also once said that “an artist paints to reveal him­self through what he sees in his sub­ject,” mean­ing that he in some sense embod­ied ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Roy­al Acad­e­my of the Arts Artis­tic Direc­tor Tim Mar­low quotes that line in the 60-sec­ond intro­duc­tion to Hop­per above, then points to a com­mon thread in the painter’s “enig­mat­ic works”: a “pro­found con­tem­pla­tion of the world around us” that turns each of his paint­ings into one cap­tured “moment of still­ness in a fran­tic world.”

Much of Hop­per’s work came out of the Great Depres­sion, “a peri­od of great uncer­tain­ty and anx­i­ety, but also a time of deep nation­al self-imag­i­na­tion about the very idea of Amer­i­can-ness.” To look at the fig­ures who inhab­it Hop­per’s thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can set­tings — a gas sta­tion, a hotel room, inside a train car, an all-night din­er — self-reflec­tion would seem to be their main pas­time.

“A woman sits alone drink­ing a cup of cof­fee,” says the School of Life’s head of Art and Archi­tec­ture Han­na Rox­burgh of Hop­per’s 1927 Automat in the video above. “She seems slight­ly self-con­scious and a lit­tle afraid. Per­haps she’s not used to sit­ting alone in a pub­lic space. Some­thing seems to have gone wrong. The view is invit­ed to invent sto­ries for her of betray­al or loss.”

Lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, even despair: these words tend to come up in dis­cus­sion of the moods of Hop­per’s char­ac­ters, as well as of his paint­ings them­selves. In the in-depth explo­ration above, Col­in Wing­field focus­es on a sin­gle emo­tion expressed in Hop­per’s work: alien­ation. A prod­uct of the “machine age” in late 19th- and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, Hop­per expressed an uneasy view of the ways in which accel­er­at­ing indus­tri­al­iza­tion and automa­tion were alter­ing the lives lived around him into unrec­og­niz­abil­i­ty. This view would turn out to have an enor­mous cul­tur­al res­o­nance, as detailed in Edward Hop­per and the Blank Can­vas, the hour­long doc­u­men­tary below.

Touch­ing on the Hop­per influ­ences seen in the work of direc­tors like Alfred Hitch­cock and Ter­rence Mal­ick as well as tele­vi­sion shows like Mad Men and The Simp­sons, Edward Hop­per and the Blank Can­vas also brings in cul­tur­al fig­ures like the Ger­man film­mak­er Wim Wen­ders, an avowed Hop­per enthu­si­ast with much to say about the painter’s vision in Amer­i­ca. More cre­ators from the world of cin­e­ma appear in the video below to offer their per­son­al per­spec­tives on Hop­per’s con­sid­er­able influ­ence on their art form — an art form that had con­sid­er­able influ­ence on Hop­per, an avid movie­go­er since he first watched a motion pic­ture in Paris in 1909.

No sin­gle paint­ing of Hop­per’s has had as much influ­ence on film as 1942’s Nighthawks, by far the painter’s best-known work. How exact­ly he achieved his own cin­e­mat­ic effects in a still image, such as the “sto­ry­board­ing” tech­nique with which he devel­oped its com­po­si­tion, is a sub­ject we’ve fea­tured before here on Open Cul­ture. In the video essay Nighthawks: Look Through the Win­dow,” Evan Puschak — bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer — seeks out the sources of the paint­ing’s endur­ing pow­er, from its “clean, smooth, and almost too real” aes­thet­ic to its rig­or­ous com­po­si­tion to its host of visu­al ele­ments meant to both com­pel and unset­tle the view­er.

Hop­per explains his way of work­ing in his own words in the short video from the Walk­er Art Cen­ter below. “It’s a long process of ges­ta­tion in the mind and a ris­ing emo­tion,” he says, fol­lowed by “draw­ings, quite often many draw­ings”: “var­i­ous small sketch­es, sketch­es of the thing that i wish to do, also sketch­es of details in the pic­ture.” As for the themes of “lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, mod­ern man and his man-made envi­ron­ment” so often ascribed to the final prod­ucts, “those are the words of crit­ics. It may be true and it may not be true. It’s how the view­er looks at the pic­tures, what he sees in them.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Edward Hop­per “Sto­ry­board­ed” His Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Intro­duc­tion

9‑Year-Old Edward Hop­per Draws a Pic­ture on the Back of His 3rd Grade Report Card

10 Paint­ings by Edward Hop­per, the Most Cin­e­mat­ic Amer­i­can Painter of All, Turned into Ani­mat­ed GIFs

How Famous Paint­ings Inspired Cin­e­mat­ic Shots in the Films of Taran­ti­no, Gilliam, Hitch­cock & More: A Big Super­cut

60-Sec­ond Intro­duc­tions to 12 Ground­break­ing Artists: Matisse, Dalí, Duchamp, Hop­per, Pol­lock, Rothko & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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