I sometimes think Americans take a most unfair beating in Edward Hopper's city paintings. We always appear so dispirited and lonely, as though we were disillusioned survivors of some national disaster. Yet whenever Hopper was asked about the loneliness evident in his work, he indicated annoyance with the question. Eventually he did make the blunt but unhelpful statement that the "loneliness thing was overdone." But we still have nothing but guesswork about what he felt.
It's so easy to misread an artist's intentions, and perhaps Hopper was not making comments on bleak American lives made dusty by too much city solitude and too many aimless nights. But I find it difficult to avoid this impression.
However, his paintings of New England coastal architecture are a different matter altogether. It's as though his spirit were washed clean and hung out to dry in the freshness and spaciousness of the Yankee sunlight. Indeed, light is used to construct all these wonderful, chunky, gabled houses he paints. But the light used never seems to vary. He always manages to catch that stinging, searching, tonic quality of the American light.
I recently saw quite a number of Hopper's paintings in a London gallery, and the specificity of America was both tangible and surprising to me. But I must confess to finding it an uneasy experience, as if my own family photographs were on display instead. For Hopper and most of what he recorded was quintessentially American. Even though the restaurants, the gas station, the apartment and office scenes seem dated in appearance (or rather, period), these are still views and activities that are peculiarly American and personal to most of us. And that's just it: he's taken the blindingly familiar, painted it in oils, and then given it back to us to see exactly what he thinks we look like.
But on the whole, I don't believe Americans do look quite so plagued by separateness. Certainly there are aspects of American life that lend themselves to loneliness, such as the dictum of self-determination which, in heavy doses, can develop into self-seeking; or self-reliance evolving into self-absorption. But I've always thought of Americans as a congenial people, fairly comfortable with big-city life and well adapted to contempory demands.
Looking at the city through Hopper's eyes makes me think again. Is Hopper showing us those Americans who don't adapt so well, people who can't run fast enough, or try to keep pace, but in so doing are left worn and emptied? In fact , I can't help wondering if Hopper is playing on the American fear of failure. These are all debatable questions which inevitably lead into a labyrinth of more uncomfortable questions. And in the end, the American spirit gets trapped and the image of American buoyancy is sapped. Characteristically it was a debate in which Hopper himself refused to participate.
But when it comes to New England architecture, questions are unnecessary. He seems to glory in it, painting monuments of national esteem. There is something primitive, essential, and yet monumental about these paintings, as though the essence of early Colonial America hangs on their shoulders. This vision of America is a simpler, purer one, unsullied by city life and city emotions. Indeed, emotions don't even come into it. These are symbols of ideals --strong, spiritual beacons of brightness -- like "The Lighthouse at Two Lights," standing there proud and resplendent and high on a promontory looking out to sea.
Whether Hopper consciously painted such a high-minded vision is of less importance than the fact that one feels a certain lifting and freedom in the human spirit. It's definitely not a sense of blandness which one can take from paintings of architecture. Nor is it simply a pleasure in building-block constructions. It is an irrepressible glow that shines forth from the whole painting, like a face made radiant by a deep-seated hope.
When I returned to New England after a long period abroad, I found that I too was completely bowled over by these same clapboard houses. They're tremendously optimistic images. Whatever else changes, they remain unpretentiously handsome, honest, and assured. In those steadfast New England lines, something good must communicate itself, otherwise that distinct style would not have been reproduced all across America. I think it's partly because New England architecture exudes a kind of comfort and continuity. And, judging by how often and how intensely Hopper painted these buildings, they must have been a mighty emblem of reassurance to him as well.