Soir Bleu, painted by Hopper in 1914 in Paris, France, is the most peculiar among all Hopper’s works, and at that early stage of his career, his most ambitious one. To some experts it is also one of the best.
In any case, it is a truly accomplished piece of great art, even if it was done while Hopper was still an apprentice (despite being already 32 years old) who had only painted small format nudes and self-portraits so far, and his only oils of any sort of decent scale were landscapes or cityscapes with tiny or nonexistent human figures.
He travelled trice to Europe (mainly France) in order to know first-hand the emerging art scene there, but he always studied alone and seemed mostly unaffected by the new currents, he never showed interest in Picasso or Matisse or any other of the great masters of the time (he later admitted to no European influences other than French engraver Charles Méryon –whose moody Paris scenes Hopper imitated–, and also declared, in his particularly surly and derogatory fashion, that he “didn’t remember having heard of Picasso at all”… Woof! (and mind you: nobody dared to ask him if he was joking, since Edward Hopper “never, ever, joked”.)
However, after a long series of urban and architectural drawings and small oils, with a dark palette, and not much merit beyond its technical competence, he suddenly produced Soir Bleu; a large figure painting, which shows very clearly that Hopper had wanted to actually take on the big canvases of Matisse and Picasso. (By the way, he titled it in French, and made explicit mention of the Picassian colour par excellence at the time… : he did not call it “Blue Evening”. He called it Soir Bleu.)
The canvas depicts an odd assortment of people gathered under a tent, all of them sat around small tables, except one. On the far left, a working-class man smoking a cigarette; in the centre, another smoker, with a painter’s looks, a military officer, a rather sinister clown, despite his bright white costume, and a prostitute standing up; and on the far right a bourgeois couple. All are different, and everyone seems alien to everyone else, either showing an abstracted expression or looking to something we do not see.
Just the sort of lonely world and lonely people that Hopper will continue to represent so importantly from his return to New York and Massachusetts and until the end of his life: sour, depressed derelicts, devoid of any human cordiality; like he, himself, was.
Hopper gives me the thrills, but I cannot help admiring his work, and I bow low before his immense talent to transmit sadness and solitude. Look:
[Whitney Museum of American Art, New York]