Edward Hopper revamps motel chain, train carriage and diner

Edward Hopper is a painter of gloomy-looking paintings which don’t make us feel gloomy. In Automat (1927), a woman sits alone drinking a cup of coffee. It is late and, to judge by her hat and coat, cold outside. The room seems large, brightly lit and empty. The decor is functional, and the woman looks self-conscious and slightly afraid. Perhaps she’s unused to sitting alone in a public place. Something appears to have gone wrong. She invites the viewer to imagine stories about her – of betrayal or loss. She may be trying not to let her hand shake as she moves the coffee cup to her lips. It may be eleven at night in February in a large dark North American city.

©James A. Reeves – bigamericannight.com

Automat is a picture of sadness – and yet it is not a sad picture. There can be something enticing, even charming, about anonymous diners. The lack of domesticity, the bright lights and anonymous furniture offer a relief from what can be the false comforts of home. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a cosy living room with wallpaper and framed photos. Home often appears to have betrayed Hopper’s characters; something has happened there that forces them out into the night and onto the road. The twenty-four-hour diner, the train station waiting room or motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for sound reasons, failed to find a place in the ordinary world of relationships and community.

A side effect of coming into contact with any great artist is that we start to notice things in the world that the painter would have been receptive to. Nowadays, we’ve become sensitised to what one might call the Hopper-esque, a quality found not only in the North American places where Hopper himself went, but anywhere in the developed world where there are motels and service stations, roadside diners and airports, bus stations and all-night supermarkets.

©Robert Kreutzmann

For example, service stations readily evoke Hopper’s famous Gas, painted thirteen years after Automat. In this painting, we see a petrol station on its own in the impending darkness. The isolation is made poignant and enticing. The darkness that spreads like a fog from the right of the canvas contrasts with the security of the station. Against the backdrop of night and the wild woods, in this last outpost of humanity, a sense of kinship seems easier to develop than in daylight in the city.

Hopper loved the introspective mood that travelling often puts us into. He liked painting the atmosphere inside half-empty train carriages making their way across a landscape, when we can stand outside our normal selves and look over our lives in a way we don’t in more settled circumstances. We have all known the atmosphere in Hopper’s Compartment C, Car 293 – though we perhaps never recognise as well as when Hopper holds a mirror up to it.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler had painted it. There was of course lots of fog, it was just that little bit harder to notice its qualities without the example of Whistler to direct our gaze. What Wilde said of Whistler, we may well say of Hopper: that there were far fewer interesting, strangely haunting and consolingly beautiful service stations, train carriages, motels and diners visible in the world before Edward Hopper began to paint.