Here’s wishing a happy posthumous birthday to American painter Edward Hopper, who was born on this day in 1882. Very capable of picking out melancholic beauty in the modernising world, but thoroughly cynical nonetheless, he once bluntly stated, “Ninety percent of artists are forgotten ten minutes after they’re dead.” Yet Hopper’s gruff pessimism, or perhaps pragmatism, did nothing to diminish the lasting effect of his own legacy, for he is more revered than ever for his isolated-feeling cityscapes which lodge the soft voyeurism of Vermeer into the gaudy electrified constructions of the twentieth century. Hopper was a man intrigued and disturbed by his own era, famed for documenting urban life at all hours of the day and night. And in his wariness of the changing society surrounding him, he was able to capture creeping feelings of loneliness and longing that will continue to chill viewers and fuel their own feelings of solitude.
Hopper’s vibrant New York Movie, painted in 1939, is rife with the incongruity of feeling ostracized in a city crammed with souls, and explores conflicting ideas of glamour, shabbiness, containment and escape. To the left of the composition an audience sits transfixed before a glowing screen which has drawn all present far away from the grungy grey pavements of New York City, out of the dusky surroundings of the pseudo-oriental movie palace with plush seats, towards daring adventures on a bright, airy mountainside. The right of the painting is occupied by its contrary focal point, a static female usher left unfazed by the exciting whirring of the film reel. She, too, is far away, but only in her own wearying thoughts. Her duties appear to keep her cemented firmly in realities others around her are so easily evading.
The model used for the usherette was Hopper’s wife, Jo. He painted her often, toying with her hair colour, weight and even age to create diverse figures for various compositions. Studies for New York Movie show Jo in several different poses under direct light beaming from a wall lamp in the couple’s apartment. Hopper took a woman from his own dear acquaintance and transformed her into the uniformed but elegant hostess of a magnificent cinema of his own invention. She is an individual, but also the cookie-cutter spectre of countless city-dwelling girls in her position— a fixture of her ornate place of employment. Inspired by other grand movie theatres, the artist designed all the exotic decor seen here, down to the heavily-carved wooden column and swirling blue carpet pattern. By placing his pensive, paid-by-the-hour protagonist in a decadently bolstered-up atmosphere, ironically her natural habitat, Hopper ensures her alienation is felt all the more acutely as it seeps silently from the apricot haze of her adjoining hallway.
On a broader level, Hopper is also probing the duality of contemporary life, this wonderful age in which people flock to artificial realms to partake of shared, larger-than-life experiences and forget their troubles among rows of identical velour-covered chairs. However, the seats in the foreground of the picture are vacant, illuminating the hollow qualities Hopper saw in synthetic pleasure gardens. His forlorn usherette asks viewers to peek around the corners of ritzy façades and perceive the struggles of those left to clean up after the exhilarating action has finished. There she stands, apart, bored and burdened; much the twentieth-century companion to Manet’s indifferent serving girl staring out of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
She is a necessary, largely unnoticed accessory to the good times had by her well-heeled patrons, and she will acquiesce to her responsibilities after the curtain drops and they have shuffled out into the night towards further leisurely pursuits. But Hopper poignantly froze her in time, a working class dragonfly caught in the gay amber light so enjoyed by others. Before the feature’s end she pauses somberly by an expectant staircase, its steps deserted but just waiting to lead every one of us back into real life, no matter how harsh it might be out there.