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100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Edward Hopper: Early Sunday Morning - 1930

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art

From the other side of the street we look, straight at an unremarkable row of shops. Above the store fronts windows stare blindly back, curtains drawn against an implacable early light. A cloudless sky, perhaps betraying the remnants of some mist, presides over the terrace. The just-risen sun casts long shadows down the street – its rays illuminate most of the building but consign the shop doorways into deep gloom. One is reminded of Giorgio de Chirico’s sun drenched piazzas bounded by loggias of unfathomable darkness harbouring nightmarish foreboding. But here the shadows are more benign – one doorway is already open, the first sign of a new day – the dark shielded windows above provide refuge only to the last prosaic dreams of a now vanished night.

The nightmare which stalks this painting is not the haunting, hidden terror of de Chirico but the suffocating presence of a crushing ennui – it is interesting that Hopper has chosen to tell us via the title that we are witnessing a Sunday morning; not a weekday, when the exigencies of work might brush aside any brooding unease, or a Saturday when release from work might engender a mild euphoria, but Sunday, that dread day of childhood boredom, forced worship and the ticking of the clock towards another Monday. The nightmare is an enveloping claustrophobia caused by the blocking presence of the terrace confronting the viewer – a claustrophobia intensified by the absence of any human figures. The repeated patterns of windows and doors mirror the dreary routine of city life offering no prospect of a release from the constrictions imposed by a cramped architectural environment – no prospect of the sort of bucolic idyll which Hopper himself was experiencing that summer in Cape Cod.

This first summer in Cape Cod led to the decision to build a second home there which became Hopper’s regular summer escape from New York (he occupied his apartment in Greenwich Village from 1913 until his death in 1967). But his paintings of coastal Massachusetts maintain the same note of melancholic alienation which pervades his urban settings.

Hopper’s world is a domain of detachment, a province where forces conspire to stifle human intercourse. In this picture the loneliness is the viewer’s – no one moves in the soundless street – but even when Hopper introduces a meagre cast of players they almost always fail to connect – cocooned in a mood of introspection. The famous Nighthawks is a good example. Three customers sit at the bar of an otherwise empty diner; it is late – outside the city is deserted. One customer sits with his back to us, head lowered, obviously lost in his own world. A couple sit opposite him but they do not converse, they are both similarly, perhaps momentarily, preoccupied with their own thoughts. The attendant behind the bar stares into the empty street. The painting induces a powerful response in the viewer – a mixture of alienation and aching loneliness. Hopper commented `I didn’t see it as particularly lonely … Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.’

Contemporary Works

1930    Salvador Dalí:  The Invisible Sleeping Woman, Horse, Lion etc, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou

1930    Pablo PicassoSeated Bather, New York, Guggenheim Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock – Hills

Georgia O'Keefe

The Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth

Christina’s World

Andrew Wyeth