After a rather long interval, I come back to my ongoing series of posts about Edward Hopper. Despite having already advanced drafts for longer posts, I feel like commenting first on three paintings; one of them very well known (deservedly –and already posted on this blog before); the others are less seen by the general public. Beyond their variable visual appeal, all of them are masterworks with respect to the illustration of light.
Hopper painted Dawn in Pennsylvania in 1942, just a few months after completing his iconic Nighthawks. He used the same (if a little smaller) broad horizontal format to show a similar dramatic contrast of light and shadows. We also see a most peculiar framing of a central depth bounded by flat façades, evoking a theatrical stage and, perhaps, a dramatic narrative ready to begin.
This scene looks absolutely deserted, and also eerie to me; both the motionless train and the wheeled cart are partly out of the frame, and on the other hand we have two apparently conflicting light sources: the station platform is flooded from the right with what seems to be morning sunshine, yet on the left the dark sky of the night lightens as if with coming dawn.
Maybe it is not a pleasant painting, but it intrigues and seduces me.
[Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, USA]
House at Dusk dates from 1935. Hopper shows us the top floor of an apartment building on the outskirts of a city. There are several windows; two of them well illuminated from inside, and a single person –a woman sitting on a red chair, looking down and maybe reading or sewing. No one else can be seen through the windows.
Two scarcely plausible flights of steps, off to the right, visually connect the house with the gloomy wood that dominates the middle layer of the painting. The direction of the stairs leads our eyes out of the frame beyond the trees, to some unseen place. There is nobody on the steps, anyway. The top of a lone street lamp in the lower right corner of the canvas and a little shaded lamp in a room of the house are the only overt light sources shown. But the front of the building is well illuminated and we can even see a shadow on the third chimney from the left, which reveal that other street lamps should exist. Despite the restricted palette employed, is not at all difficult to tell which light comes from the dusky sky and which comes from the street below.
Hopper was a great master of light, indeed.
[Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, USA]
[P.S. I’ve been shown by a colleague another photograph of this painting with quite different shades, with less yellow and much more blue and green, that I like even more than the one above. Since I do not know for sure which colours are truer to the original –and despite my sensation is that the ones I showed first are– I present here this variation.]
Gas (1940) is the last and best-known canvas in this small selection, and it is truly a masterwork.
The painting does not represent any particular gasoline station (it is a composite of many of them seen by the artist), since Hopper’s aim was not to depict any straightforward narrative, but a very complex one: “the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature” (in his own words) —in this case, the loneliness of an American country road. As subjective as the goal was, the result has an air almost Surrealistic.
The scene is set at the frontiers between day and night, between civilization and nature. The station looks like a last outpost, where the human realm gives way, across the road, to the realm of nature. The edge of the woods rises like a wall and our eyes return once and again to the bright electrical lights in the gas station –which in contrast, are almost painful to look at.
Like in House at Dusk, painted five years before, the mixing of natural and artificial light, of safe and well-ordered civilization and disquieting wilderness, gives this scene a sort of transcendence. To me, this borderline gas station and its lone attendant have the air of belonging to a legend or a fairy-tale. They become memorable.
[Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY, USA]
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