Edward Hopper, William Safire: The Visual and the Word

If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

In general it can be said that a nation’s art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people.

—- Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967)

Edward Hopper’s words point to the power of the visual.  I always find Hopper’s realist paintings hauntingly retrospective, convey indescribable feelings, a sense of loneliness, a touch of alienation, yet, it’s hard to say exactly what it is.

Some use the phrase ‘urban loneliness’ to pinpoint the sentiment, as most readily expressed in his famous painting Nighthawks.  But others find the term too parochial even, opting for the more universal description of the human condition, ‘existential loneliness’.

In this visually-driven age, where pictures are instantly produced by a click, eliminating the wait for film processing, and where digitally created images can elicit unimaginable possibilities, has the value of words diminished, both in function and significance? In a time when ‘reading skills’ refer not only to the comprehension of the written language but the deciphering of graphics and visual symbols, has the power of words been eroded?

Does the recent passing of William Safire, called ‘the oracle of language’ by the NY Times, represent the passing of an era?  How many are left to champion the traditional form of communication, to point out word origin, to extol proper grammar usage?  While these gatekeepers are frowning on the split infinitive, the rest of the world has already jumped on board the newer vessel to boldly go where no person has gone before. The reign of literal communication has gradually (or quickly, or___ you fill in the blank) been replaced by the more accessible instant imaging, flickring, youtubing…

Let’s hope too that the traditional art form of painting will not be soon replaced by iPhone sketching.  If the New Yorker’s cover artist is using an iPhone app to touch-produce its cover pages, will the demise of oils and paints be far away?

Of course, I come to praise Hopper, not to bury words, or paints. Rather than saying his paintings defy literal descriptions, let’s just take up this bemusing challenge and do a role reversal:  What words conjure up in your mind when you look at these Hopper paintings? Let’s celebrate words, and paints, while we still have them.

Of all the subjects in his works, I particularly like the solitary figure, or the non-figure, like the room devoid of human presence.  Here are some of them:

Automat (1927):  Layered with subtext, what are the stories behind this lone female customer at the automat in such hour?  What is a good description of her predicament?

Automat 1927


New York Movie (1939): Here’s the reason why I love Hopper’s works.  The contrast, the darker side, the quiet undercurrent beneath the glamorous, the sombre reminder of complexity.



Rooms by the Sea (1951):  A touch of Magritte I feel.  An example of what I call the non-figure.  The philosophical quest of knowing: If nobody’s around to see it, does it still exist?

Edward - Hopper - rooms_by_the_sea


Cape Cod Morning (1950):  Unlike his other works, this solitary female figure is positive, eager,  enthused, and achingly expectant.  Is she a symbol of the optimism of a new age, or will she be disillusioned as reality sets in? 1950 or 2009, is there so much difference anyway?

Cape Cod Morning Hopper (1950)


Gas (1940):  I’m sure it’s not all about gas… does it allude to the lone traveling salesman like Willy Loman, or the gas station owner like George Wilson in The Great Gatsby?



Nighthawks (1942):  Perhaps the most famous of Hopper’s paintings.  As some call it, the depiction of ‘existential loneliness’.  Is that Sartre sitting there all alone at 2:00 am, contemplating in a diner with no exit?



Click here to go to a related post ‘Inspired by Vermeer’ with another Edward Hopper painting, Morning Sun.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

27 thoughts on “Edward Hopper, William Safire: The Visual and the Word”

  1. First Bill Buckley now Bill Safire. Two of the few remaining intelligent conservatives within the space of so short at time. The voices of reason within the conservative movement are dwindling by the day.

    Meanwhile the movement that the two men were so identified with – the movement they both tried to save from the kooks, criminals and fools who have hijacked it – continues to implode.

    Isn’t life wonderful?


    Tom Degan


    … ah, the times they are a changin… It’s not so much about nostalgia, but certain values have been eroded by the winds of change.

    Thanks for your comment.



  2. Oh Hopper’s tones, contrasts and implied loneliness leave me speechless too. I have a wonderful postcard of a sketch of his, a couple on a train, huddled in a corner in conversation. I adore it and use it as a bookmark in whatever novel I am reading (that would be The Ambassadors for almost a year now).

    What’s fun is that we who love words can keep writing them about the demise of them! 🙂

    You might enjoy – if I haven’t shared him already – a Parisian artist named Denis Fremond I discovered one trip. His work reminds me of Hopper’s:


    I have included a link at that post to his web site. I love his work!


    1. Ruth,
      Yes, isn’t it true…word lovers have that privilege… writing about the demise of words. Thanks for the two links, really interesting. I think Fremond has a surreal touch while Hopper is more a realist. I love that sketch and the poem. Again, thanks for sharing.


  3. Hey, Arti, I’ve been meaning to comment on this most interesting post on Hopper’s paintings. And then you posed a question about photo equipment and such. First, I’ve enjoyed reading more about Hopper and your commentary on these works. As for camera gear, I have a link here for the details. For these shots of the cats, I used the camera’s monochrome mode, 1600 ISO, shooting in Program mode with the lens (my 50mm) wide open, -1/3 Ev.


    Thanks for the info on your camera equipment… great gears you have… what fun!
    As for Hoppers, he deserves many more posts. Thanks for your comment.



  4. I’m a Hopper lover. I have one hanging in the kitchen, of a woman setting a table (and why don’t I know the name of it? egads) and Cape Cod Morning! it’s lovely. And Automat is another fave. I don’t see it as lonely as much as “urban” and if you were ever in one of those in an off-hour, it was like that. Quiet, Surrounded by tables that at lunchtime swarmed but now, in the evening, are empty. No one really wants a sandwich and coffee for dinner. And the city is surprisingly good place to think, which I always (like to ) think this girl is doing.

    As for Wm Safire, will classic attention to language die? No, never. Many will take up the cause. No one will do it like he did. No one will stir so many things about language and so sensibly (even if I didn’t always agree.) Let’s just see who the NYT will next champion. (Hopefully not Lynne Truss altho’ she could probably get a good start. )

    I really really enjoyed looking at these Hoppers, Arti. Mucho thanks!


    1. oh,

      I like your idea: ‘urban’ doesn’t necessarily mean lonely. However, I admit the phrase ‘existential loneliness’ does pique my interest. Having said that, I feel that Hopper’s solitary figures appeal to me not because so much of the loneliness conveyed but the solitude, the pensive, the search. Thank you for sharing!


  5. Arti, I keep coming back to this to stare at the pictures (mostly), wishing to say something pithy, but nothing comes. The Hopper paintings are gorgeous, and I love your little “exercise” at the end (I will be making up stories about some of these characters in my head–the young lady at the Automat is especially intriguing). Such deep, lush colors in the dark–movie lady could have stepped right out of the pages of Raymond Chandler–but when he’s in the light, oh my. I see the woman at the window differently than you do: she’s watching someone leave, to this untrained eye.

    But that is the beauty of art, it is open to so many
    interpretations. Words are not dead; oils and canvas will not disappear. They are just waiting, as they have for hundreds of years, for those who love them to make them strong again.To give them new form (and no, I do not mean through texting or twittering).

    “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”


  6. ds,

    Your third-storey window does offer inspiring views … just love that quote, so aptly selected.

    Your first few lines may just as well confirm that Hopper’s paintings can render one ‘wordless’. I fully agree with you about art eliciting various responses… isn’t that’s what blogging is all about, the sharing of views?


  7. Hi, Arti,

    I’ve been pondering these Hoppers for days now.

    I’ll have to make two comments, because “Rooms by the Sea” is such a different experience than the others. It took me quite some time to realize why I feel off-balance when I look at it. The rooms themselves are hardly noticeable – it’s the sea that predominates, luring and calling.

    Only this morning did I realize there’s no balcony, no porch, no ledge outside the opened door. To step outside it would be to step directly into the sea. It’s vertiginous – I can’t help but wonder whether Hopper was trying to communicate both the human tendency to stay in our “rooms”, and the power of life to entice us into the light and oceans of experience.

    Off to work – back later to ponder the Automat!


    1. Linda,

      Rooms by the Sea does look a bit surreal, quite different from his other paintings. I’ve the feeling that the main figure, or subject, in there is the light coming in from outside. That despite closed door, if we have some transparency, light can still shine through. Anyway, I’m not trying to ‘read’ into it more than the fact that I just love the colors here and the surreal feeling it gives… that’s all.

      A pleasure to read your comment!


  8. Hopper always portrayed a similar mood between all of his paintings. I always felt that the subjects were on the brink of a decision.. an unhappy decision. Even the Cap Cod woman. Lovely, thoughtful post.


    Welcome! Hopper’s paintings do convey something inexpressible in words… yes, maybe an ‘unhappy decision’ to make, or at least something that could bring about ambivalence. Did you have a chance to look at my Alaska pics? The last one on that post looks a bit like your sunset photos. Thank you for stopping by and I hope this is the beginning of some mutual visiting!



  9. I’m just finishing my coffee and enjoying the pensive Hoppers – Automat and Nighthawk especially, and also the differently-toned Gas and Cape Cod Morning.

    I never would have used the word “predicament” to describe the woman in the automat, and “existential loneliness” never would have occurred to me for those few at the lunch counter. Both of those scenes feel almost cozy to me. When I look at the woman, I see someone with time, at last, to ponder the possibilities of life, arrayed before her like the slices of pie and cloverleaf rolls tucked behind those tiny metal doors. Which will be open? Where will she invest her coins of time and energy?

    As for Nighthawk – it’s the meeting of a club, a gathering of night creatures, a subculture caught by an artist’s brush. They’re not experiencing angst, or existential loneliness – they’re talking about why the Yankees let that game get away from them, or whether the city’s really going to enforce those parking regulations, or if the forecasters finally will be right, and it will snow.

    All of this says as much about my experience as what Hopper intended, of course. I’ve done much of my traveling in life as a solitary, and these paintings are like postcards from my past. I love the feeling of being completely alone in a completely new environment. Why? I haven’t a clue – but I’ve been in that automat and at that lunch counter and found them wonderful places to be.

    On the other hand, when I look at Cape Cod Morning, I see a woman trapped, caught in frustration or even despair, longing to move into the world but still constrained inside the structures of her life. How’s that for an alternative viewpoint? 😉

    But that’s what it feels like – again, saying as much about me as Hopper, but no matter how I try, I can’t feel a lick of eagerness, enthusiasm or expectancy. Surely it has nothing to do with the facts of my life – being unable to travel, or even leave town for a weekend because of the complications of caring for my mom? Oh, surely not!

    In any event, it was a delight to come back and really look at these. A wonderful post – each of his works is deserving of every thoughtful word they receive.


    1. Linda,

      Your response just shows that a picture can evoke a thousand thoughts. That’s true too of any art object, music, movie, and writing, I think. You comment makes me think of the postmodern view that there being no absolute ‘interpretation’ of a piece of writing because readers put themselves into the text as they read, interacting with it through the filter of their own experiences and subjectivity. I’ve always thought this idea applies more to writing, but hey, art would all the more be so since it’s more accessible to human experiences and is evocative visually.

      As for Nighthawks, I feel the stark contrast between the couple and the lone man. It’s his aloneness that draws my attention, in a diner with no obvious exit.

      Finally, I must say, Linda, I can fully empathize with your situation about not being able to travel, or even leave town for a weekend. I have to care for two elderly parents. Vancouver is only an hour away by air, that’s the farthest I can go … the short Alaskan cruise was made possible after many complicated preparations and arrangements.

      Let’s continue to travel in the virtual world of the blogosphere, Linda. The views are equally unlimited. My deep appreciation for your regular visits and always insightful comments.


  10. The first time I saw a Hopper painting I was drawn to it immediately. I’ve been drawn to him ever since. He creates a very pensive mood. I went to an exhibition of his work in Boston, and much of his work was done near there. The show gave a new depth to my understanding and also showed how others have been moved by it, including movie makers. Thanks for posting this.


    You’re so fortunate to be able see Hopper’s works in real life.
    Which movies do you have in mind?



  11. In the Boston museum of Art exhibit, there was a display of a movie that used a Hopper painting as a design for a movie theater scene. I can’t remember the title of the movie! I’ll have to do some research on that. Hopper’s movies evoke film noir movies, such as Double Indemnity. Hopper’s works have also inspired other art, such as George Segal’s “The Diner,” which I got to see when it was on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art this year.


    Hopper’s paintings do evoke images of film noir… thanks for sharing the info.



  12. Just come back from Rome where there is a Hopper exhibition on at the moment. It’s wonderful as it contains all the preliminary sketches, water colours and colour plans showing exactly how his painting was planned and developed. They had a mock up of Night Hawk that you could sit in and become part of the scene and projections of his sketches that you could use to produce your own Hopper. I had never seen an original before and they are just amazing.


    1. Doreen,

      What a pleasure it must have been for you to view original Hopper paintings… and the whole creative process too! And it must be wonderful and exciting to be a subject inside the diner in the Night Hawk scene. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience!


  13. Pingback: Mperience!
  14. Oh Arti, I have no idea where to start. I think the only one of these that I’ve seen before is that common one, Nighthawks. I can’t talk and think about them all so I’ll just talk about Automat and it’s hard doing so from a small image. Her face could look more pensive than lonely but I’m not sure. She is alone – even if we don’t know whether she is lonely. Then again that hat – fashionable for the time, but he has chosen that particular style for her and its downward droop could be meant to mirror her emotions?

    What about the bowl of fruit in the background – placed right in the centre of the horizontal plane and just behind her right shoulder? Is it fruit – apples and bananas? It must signify something? It adds the only real bit of colour to the image – and that colour is RED. Passion? Temptation? Is it meant to be ironic – a contrast with the drabness of her life? It’s behind her so she’s turned away from it? Or, she’s oblivious to it? Its central point in the picture is telling us something.

    And the title “Automat” I guess tells us something – suggests the impersonal and isolation.

    You could spend a long time analysing the details in this picture.


    1. whisperinggums,

      You know, I think Hopper’s quote at the beginning of my post says it all:
      “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” But our pleasure of course rests on the discussions and sharing of our viewpoints… as you’ve once mentioned, it’s hard to speculate the intention of an author. So what’s left is the viewer’s responses. With this, Hopper should have been gratified because he sure had roused up a lot of reactions and appreciation for his works. Thanks for your contribution!


      1. Thanks Arti …. yes, I love that quote and am pondering using it for a post – may or may not, depends if I can get some thoughts together. If I do, I’ll be referring back to you! As for Hopper generating discussion, he sure does doesn’t he?

        Sure… the more ripples the merrier. 😉


  15. What a wonderful post – I love Hopper too. I find the colours and the lines of Hopper’s work so bold and beautiful that the figures become small and isolated in comparison – the urban landscape has overtaken them. And yet the light bathes the figures in some warmth and comfort; it turns them into oases of humanity against the vast backdrop of their world. And Hopper was a brilliant storyteller – he knew what a cliffhanger looked like to paint – the woman in the window of the Cape Cod house is a perfect example. And while it’s so much fun to put words to images, I feel cautiously optimistic that we’ll keep doing so for a while yet to come. 🙂


    1. Litlove,

      Thanks for reading some of my older posts. I’d a lot of fun researching and writing about Hopper, or Vermeer, or Austen… And yes, I try to stay cautiously optimistic too about words, but it’s an upstream. Also, the kinds of words used are always changing. So, even if words are still valued, they just may not be the kind of words you and I treasure. Know what I mean?


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