The woman by the window.
An artistic study of isolation in the paintings of Edward Hopper and a discussion of their current relevance
[ I ] an introduction
I want you to take a look at this painting.
It’s by an artist, Edward Hopper, who lived from 1882 to 1967. It depicts four people. A man with a woman, their relationship unknown, another man by himself, and the waiter of this bar. They look lonely, sure, but seem to be in decent company. A warm ambiance showers the foreground, contrasting the deep and dark blue-green background. The perspective is odd, forcing the viewer to be outside the building looking in. This painting is arguably Hopper’s most impressive and renowned piece, but beyond its complex composition, detailed texture, and rich colors, it conveys a certain sentiment within the viewer, something that may not have been so obvious before 2020. In a world roughly one hundred years after the point in time this painting captures, we can still vividly place ourselves among these people, brought together in a shared place, shielded from the outside but, ultimately, removed from the rest of the world.
This is an essay about urban isolation, the effects of solitude, and the reason why Hopper can transcend time periods. It’s an analysis of why he painted what he painted. And it’s an answer to the question of why you might feel melancholic viewing his work despite being someone he never intended to paint for.
[ II ] an artist
Hopper was born as the second child in a middle-class New York family. Being that their house overlooked the iconic skyline, urban lifestyle became very much a part of Hopper’s identity. Quiet and reserved as a child, Hopper tended to himself, immersed in the worlds of art and literature. His interest in model boat building led him to ponder a future in naval architecture, but it was clear that he was starting to take the idea of being a painter seriously as his work became more and more sophisticated. In a series of moves between art schools, Hopper decided to travel to Europe three separate times, twice staying in Paris, before moving permanently into a small New York apartment in the heart of Manhattan (The Art Story).
It would be roughly a decade later that Hopper would reacquaint himself with a former art school colleague named Josephine Nivison. After a year together, they got married and Jo became Hopper’s primary model for his paintings. As he continued to produce more paintings, his reputation as an artist grew and his specific style caught the attention of many art exhibitions as well as fellow painters.
“Many other abstract painters appreciated Hopper’s style, even though he never returned the compliment.” (Lyons).
Despite his growing popularity, Hopper and Jo remained frugal and isolated; Hopper had very few friends and enjoyed watching movies and remaining in solitude. His body of work would come to represent this. With repeated visual elements such as figures looking out windows, bright highlights contrasting deep shadows, and a third-person outside perspective looking into the isolated world of the figures in these paintings, Hopper had created a style that encapsulated the melancholic feeling of being alone in a beautiful yet stagnant world.
[ III ] a metaphor
Here’s an example of what I mean. Take both of these paintings. The one on the left is in an urban setting, whereas the one on the right is in a natural setting. The composition is nearly identical.
In both cases, a woman (modeled by Jo) faces the bright and colorful world through perfectly transparent windows. The only obstacle between the subject and the outside world is the windowpane, which may appear brittle in nature and easy to overcome but may actually lead to sharp edges and an unwelcoming exit if broken. Is it worth breaking the windowpane to escape? Would you rather remain alone, able to enjoy looking outside but knowing that you will never actually be outside? What is one to do in this situation but sit in solitude and ponder over how nice it would be to stand in the open air, bathed in the sunshine.
Bland interiors clashing against detailed and textured exteriors is another recurring theme in Hopper’s work, representing an exaggeration of the human tendency to grow easily accustomed to the same set of circumstances. We desire new stimulation quite often, which may seem contrary to our simultaneous tendency to remain in comfortable and familiar situations.
It turns out that our comfort zone, a circumstance we find ourselves in when experiencing homeostasis and lower stress levels, is an innate part of our psychology that was beneficial for our survival during early human societal development (Psychreg). New situations were usually attributed to risk and, therefore, a higher chance of dying.
Our quality of life, however, has significantly changed since then, but our brains have remained the same. The baseline comfort zone, nowadays, may actually hinder our ability to try new things and enjoy life to the fullest by persuading us to settle down and only look outside from within the confines of what we deem comfortable. Every subject in Hopper’s paintings, therefore, is in their comfort zone. Whether this is by their own accord or not is unknown, but it is clear that Hopper’s own introverted nature, throughout his life but especially following his marriage with Jo, bled through into the lives of the people he painted.
[ IV ] a pandemic
There are many parallels to be drawn between Hopper’s works and pandemics. More specifically, Hopper focuses on the concept of remaining isolated within a place that is usually busy with life, never sleeping, always creating noise. The city setting is an expectedly vibrant one, with people from all across the world coming together to live within the confines of a single shared identity. However, in Hopper’s paintings, the city seems to always sleep; its streets are empty, lights are dim, and windows and doors are shut. It’s not completely uninviting, but still somewhat desolate and uncomfortable.
Take the above painting as an example. If you were to take your hands and cover everything but the inside of the store, you would assume the painting is in daylight and the streets around are full of life, as would most depictions of a city corner. By adding the yellow, green, and black concrete around the pharmacy window for context, Hopper has placed the bright and colorful store within a city that seemed to never know the existence of colors. This juxtaposition perfectly illustrates how trapped one may feel when isolated in a small, bright corner of the world; it may seem liberating to operate in a space that is comfortable, but when there is nothing else to experience, it becomes easy to grow tiresome of your environment, eventually viewing what once were colors as nothing more than drab streaks of light.
It was around the same time in history that discussion of pandemics and quarantining was starting to become more prevalent. The Spanish Flu, with its roughly 500 million cases and 50 million deaths, started spreading in 1918, lasting roughly two years. American cities, with no vaccine or knowledge of the virus’s causes, were forced to quarantine, though this did little to stop the spread. An estimated 675,000 Americans died (Roos). In 1907, fears of typhoid fever resulted in the quarantining of the first recorded asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella Typhi. This quarantine would last for 26 years, and Typhoid Mary (whose real name was Mary Mallon) would die of pneumonia at age 69, alone and with no friends in complete isolation (Tyson).
“Returning to New York City… Hopper would have heard ominous reports of a 40 percent decline in shipyard productivity due to flu illnesses in the midst of World War I. Public health officials had begun alerting the population about the dangers of coughing and sneezing and making careless disposal of ‘nasal discharges.’ That autumn, there was imposed a ‘restriction of movement of individuals, avoidance of crowds in cinemas, public meetings, etc.,’” (Levin).
Though Hopper may not have directly draw inspiration from these events but rather from his own personal experiences and struggles in life, the similarities are undeniable; in a sense, the cause of isolation is not as important to the psyche of a person as is the reality of remaining isolated for an extended period of time. We grow fearful of the opportunities we miss from being disconnected with the world, and we wish to revert to a level of normalcy, even if that means participating in the most mundane of activities. Anything would be better than sitting one more hour in that same exact chair.
This sentiment may bring back emotions felt during the start of the COVID pandemic. Suddenly, everything shut down, and what used to be bustling neighborhoods or city streets with daily customers buying from stores, restaurants, and cafes quickly became almost post-apocalyptic. Similarly, many of us found ourselves trapped within the walls of our houses, able to look outside but not able to leave, at least for the first wave. It is this longing for the norm while simultaneously existing in a space that is familiar to us that is so expertly captured by Hopper in his paintings. Your house is your home. It is inviting, curated for your very pleasures, full of the people that mean the most to you, but it can become exhausting if not excruciating if there is no ability to escape every once in a while.
All of Hopper’s works use vibrant colors, warm notes, complex composition, and detailed textures. Yet they still appear simple, easy to digest, and calming in their presentation. They may almost feel familiar, as if they are long-lost memories. These are the qualities of homes, or rather places we feel comfortable in. Spaces such as these that are not from our own memories but feel as if they are are often defined as liminal, referring to their transitionary property. It is for this reason that when looking at Hopper’s paintings with the hindsight of our experiences during the pandemic, we may feel a connection to the places and the people in those places. One could just as easily replace the furniture in the room with their own and step inside Hopper’s world. It is now their world, and for the majority of individuals during the past two years, it was their world.
[ V ] a lesson
What’s the importance of all of this? Sure, Hopper was an influential American painter who’s work is studied by many and who’s themes relate to feelings of isolation that can be shared among more people now due to the COVID pandemic. But understanding why this connection exists is important. It provides us, the people who lived through the pandemic, the ability to look from an outside perspective into our own lives, understand why we were feeling the way we were feeling, and move towards a brighter future. We can look back on how we were during the pandemic as if we were the subjects in Hopper’s paintings. we are them and they are us. We are to our pandemic selves what Hopper was to the people caputured in his paintings.
An odd byproduct of this pandemic may have been the improved connection to oneself. This, too, is represented in Hopper’s works; the figures, though isolated and at times longing for the freedom of being outside, remain pensive, remain themselves, and most importantly remain optimistic for the future. They continue to read the newspaper, talk amongst friends, and drink their morning cups of coffee. Hopper’s world may not be perfect, but it’s the small moments of joy in life that can help make it manageable.
While I have focused on urban isolation and its depiction in Hopper’s works throughout this essay, these, at times, depressing atmospheres are not the only thing Hopper was known for. His paintings were just as often chearful, sunny, and full of life, depicting people outside, enjoying the pleasures of life together.
It would, therefore, be disingenuous for us to associate Hopper with his loniliest paintings, just as it would be disingenuous for us to associate the pandemic with the moments we found ourselves the loniliest. The reason Hopper is able to transcend boundaries of time and culture may have less to do with specific compositions or color studies of his paintings and more to do with our ability to morph art into our own lives, reliving the moments we’ve experienced, both positive and negative, through his characters.
[ VI ] works cited
Brandon. “Edward Hopper Paintings and Artwork Gallery in Chronological Order.” Totally History, 18 Sept. 2012, totallyhistory.com/edward-hopper-paintings.
Lyons, Deborah. “Edward Hopper and the American Imagination.” Internet Archive, archive.org/details/edwardhopperamer0000lyon/page/110/mode/1up. Accessed 6 Mar. 2022.
“Edward Hopper Biography, Life and Quotes.” The Art Story, www.theartstory.org/artist/hopper-edward/life-and-legacy. Accessed 6 Mar. 2022.
Levin, Gail. “Project MUSE — Edward Hopper’s Loneliness.” Edward Hopper’s Loneliness, muse.jhu.edu/article/845715. Accessed 6 Mar. 2022.
Psychreg. “The Comfort Zone and Personal Growth.” Psychreg, 2 Apr. 2017, www.psychreg.org/comfort-zone-personal-growth.
Roos, Dave. “How U.S. Cities Tried to Halt the Spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu.” HISTORY, 28 May 2020, www.history.com/news/spanish-flu-pandemic-response-cities.
Tyson, Peter. “A Short History of Quarantine.” NOVA | PBS, 12 Oct. 2004, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/short-history-of-quarantine.