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Paper to Paint: Edward Hopper's Hotel Lobby
by Harriet G. Warkel
Edward Hopper's art is highly provocative and often disturbing. His contemplative figures appear to be alienated from society and to occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication. They never smile or frown, and their attitudes and expressions suggest unapproachableness. These introspective figures convey an inner turmoil that can provoke questions about relationships, the roles people play in society, and the meaning of life. Hotel Lobby, 1943, is one of Hopper's most dramatic and intriguing paintings (fig. 1). It addresses the themes of waiting, transience, age, and voyeurism in its arrangement of four figures -- an older couple, an alluring young woman, and a mysterious desk clerk. The composition is painstakingly designed with carefully selected characters organized to convey an intensely personal expression of the artist's internal conflicts and view of the world.
Edward Hopper was born into a middle-class family on July 22, 1882, in Nyack, New York. His mother had a strong interest in art and the theater, which she passed on to Eddie, as his family called him, and his sister, Marion. Hopper began drawing at age five and had started signing and dating his work by the time he was twelve. Drawing would always be an important part of Hopper's art, whether it resulted in a finished composition or a preliminary sketch. He was a shy loner who grew to six feet tall by age twelve, a height that exacerbated his feelings of awkwardness with his peers. Hopper eventually grew to six feet five inches tall, which increased his discomfort in interpersonal relationships. This unease is reflected in the alienation and isolation that permeates his work. Hopper made it clear that he felt the artist's personality played a large role in the creation of great art when he said, "Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world." Hopper's compositions serve as a diary of his view of the world and the constant struggle he waged to reconcile his personal vision with the transformations that marked the twentieth century.
After completing his high school education, Hopper began his formal art education in 1899 with a correspondence course offered by the Correspondence School of Illustrating. He studied illustration at his parent's insistence, to assuage their fear that he would not be able to earn a living as an artist. After an unsatisfying year learning how to be a successful commercial artist, Hopper enrolled at the New York School of Art (Chase School), where he studied under William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Robert Henri until 1906. Hopper had a great deal of respect for Henri and once praised him in an article he wrote for The Arts: "No single figure in recent American art has been so instrumental in setting free the hidden forces that can make of the art of this country a living expression of its character and its people." Although Hopper often said that the only real influence he had ever had was himself, his art exhibits a familiarity with Henri's student and colleague John Sloan, particularly his compositions that have New York City as their subject. In Sloan's etching Reading in the Subway, 1926, (fig. 2) a young woman engrossed in a book sits with her long legs exposed, a pose similar to that of the blond woman in Hotel Lobby. Henri and Sloan were members of the Ashcan School, a group of artists who concentrated on New York urban scenes without glorifying or glamorizing their subjects. It was this aspect of their work that is reflected in Hopper's art.
Hopper made three trips to Europe between 1906 and 1910; and although he did not study at a formal academy while abroad, he was exposed to the work of Gustave Courbet, the renowned nineteenth-century realist artist, and Edgar Degas, the impressionist painter of intimate interiors who would prove particularly influential in Hopper's later work. Hopper had been introduced to many of the great European realists -- Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez, Honoré Daumier, and Éduard Manet -- by his teachers at the New York School. It seems that he was drawn to artists whose work included scenes of ordinary people in mundane situations. Hopper also borrowed elements from early European art that would convey a particular meaning. For example, the ceiling beams in Hotel Lobby are similar to those in Jan Vermeer's sixteenth-century painting Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (fig. 3). Its incorporation in Hopper's painting enhances the sense of a tightly enclosed space. Hopper looked to Vermeer for similar inspiration for another painting, Conference at Night, 1949, (fig. 4), which also contains a beam ceiling. Vermeer's tendency to suggest an unseen viewer in his compositions is also reflected in many of Hopper's interiors.
Hopper began to develop his signature style while traveling abroad. Composed in New York between his European sojourns, Summer Interior, 1909, (fig. 5) exhibits some of the characteristics of such later work as Hotel Lobby in its intimate interior setting, simple geometry, flat areas of color, the handling of light, and the interplay of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals. The disconcerting placement of the partially clothed figure, whose face cannot be seen, hints at something sinister, just as the clerk hidden behind the desk does in Hotel Lobby. Similarities also exist between the two works in the rectangular pattern of light on the floor and the sensuality of the young women in both works. Hopper underscored this in a letter some years later: "In every artist's development the germ of the later work is always found in the earlier.... What he was once, he always is, with slight modification."
Hopper's early career focused primarily on illustration, a medium he detested, but one that afforded a regular salary that allowed him to travel abroad. He never illustrated for magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, but instead found work with trade magazines, including System: Magazine of Business, Wells Fargo Messenger, Morse Dry Dock Dial, Hotel Management, and Bulletin of the New York Edison Company. Hopper also illustrated for the more mainstream publications Country Gentleman and Farmer's Wife, which reflected his interest in the values embodied by country life. He illustrated numerous office and home interiors for these magazines and learned to use the watercolor medium and perfect his drawing skills. But Hopper did not devote all his time to illustration, even though it was his primary source of income. In a 1962 interview with Katherine Kuh, Hopper discussed his time as an illustrator: "Partly through choice, I was never willing to hire out more than three days a week. I kept some time to do my own work. Illustrating was a depressing experience."
By 1915 Hopper had developed an interest in etching, a medium that reflected his talent for drawing and ultimately opened the door to his acceptance in major exhibitions. He credited his short etching career with setting him on his future path as an artist. "After I took up etchings, my paintings seemed to crystallize." By 1923, the year he gave up producing prints, he had completed more than 60 plates. They contain many of the elements that would be present in his later work, including interiors with single figures and prominent windows, sailing subjects, train interiors, vernacular architecture, solitary houses fronted by train tracks, and scenes with elevated perspectives and unusual viewpoints (fig. 6). During this period Hopper became one of the first members of the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he regularly participated in its evening sketching class. These classes, along with his foray into printmaking, helped him sharpen the drawing skills he displayed in his mature watercolors and oils. A classmate of Hopper's, Josephine Nivison, encouraged him to explore more fully the watercolor medium. The two became reacquainted during summers they both spent in Ogunquit and on Monhegan Island in Maine. Though of contradictory personalities, they were drawn together through their mutual interest in poetry and the theater. The two married in 1924.
The couple honeymooned in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a landscape that was a favorite subject for Hopper. When Hopper and Jo began their summer sojourns in South Truro on Cape Cod in 1930, Hopper set out to render the area in watercolor, which became his medium of choice for these paintings. These scenes almost always contained houses and barns, some repeatedly painted from different angles. The spontaneity of the watercolor medium and its transportability allowed the artist to execute his paintings on the spot or inside his car during inclement weather, sometimes in one sitting. Hopper rarely used preliminary drawings for these watercolors, relying on direct observation and his familiarity with the area. This is not the case for his oil paintings, which were carefully constructed compositions composed in a studio and often preceded by numerous sketches.
When asked what he was after in his paintings, Hopper responded, "I'm after me." Hopper's compositions afford the viewer a glimpse into the artist's psyche. It was not out of a concern for the viewer's experience that Hopper revealed a part of himself, but out of a necessity to express his inner self, a part of his essence that could only be revealed, examined, and understood though his work. Perhaps this explains why a Hopper painting is difficult to interpret even though it is rooted in reality. What the viewer sees in compositions like Hotel Lobby is not a narrative painting with an obvious theme, but the inner workings of the artist's mind -- cathartic for the artist, but challenging for the viewer. This approach leaves Hopper's art open to multiple interpretations, similar to an abstract composition. The fact that his compositions contain recognizable imagery, yet still defy easy analysis, is the reason for their irresistible, enigmatic, and lasting appeal. The differing interpretations of Hopper's work have kept him in the forefront of American art through an endless number of exhibitions, books, lectures, and articles. Each new generation of critics and art historians views and interprets Hopper's art differently, adding new insight into its meaning and voicing opinions that keep the artist and his work continually relevant.
The lack of a straightforward interpretation of Hopper's imagery makes it difficult to place him within a specific movement in American art. Trained by William Merritt Chase, an impressionist; Kenneth Hayes Miller, an urban realist; and Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, Hopper is often defined as an American Scene painter, primarily because those artists had a desire to depict everyday life, both rural and urban. Hopper's art, however, does not comfortably fit into this category. His compositions are too personal and too removed from everyday reality to be viewed as depictions of daily life. Hopper disliked being categorized and insisted he was not an American Scene painter. In 1962 he complained, "I don't see why I must have the American Scene pinned on me, Eakins didn't have it pinned on him. Like most Americans, I'm an amalgam of many races." He also objected to being labeled an Ashcan School painter, stating, "Though I studied with Robert Henri I was never a member of the Ash Can School. It had a sociological trend which didn't interest me." Hopper reiterated his position in 1964, emphasizing the importance of self in his paintings: "The thing that makes me so mad is the American Scene business. I never tried to do the American Scene as Curry and the Midwestern painters did. I think the American Scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do myself." A few art historians also categorized Hopper as a modernist, focusing on the abstract qualities of his compositions, such as his emphasis on geometry, his tendency to pose figures for compositional rather than realistic purposes, and his oddly rectangular areas of light, some of which appear in places where no light source can be identified. Throughout all the debate about meaning and category, Hopper's compositions seem to hold profound secrets waiting to be revealed, secrets that entice us, even dare us, to decipher them.
Beginning in the 1920s, when Hopper's career as a painter started to take shape, until his death in 1967, he painted thirty-nine works that can be classified as interiors, including seven theater interiors and six compositions combining a landscape with a view inside a prominent interior space. Many of these are spaces related to transience: hotel and motel rooms and lobbies, restaurants, train cars, and offices. A few interiors can be categorized as summer dwellings or apartments, places of relative permanence, but Hopper primarily emphasized America's transient society, people on the move either by train or automobile. Hopper and his wife could easily be included in this group, considering their frequent excursions by car across the country and their yearly trips to their summer home on Cape Cod. They took driving trips to the west and southwest, to Canada and Maine, to the northwest, and five trips to Mexico. Hopper loved to travel and commented, "You know how beautiful things are when you're traveling."
The Hoppers stayed in numerous hotels and motels during their travels. Most of them, considering their frugality, were inexpensive establishments; but sometimes, when their trips were paid for by a museum or gallery, they stayed in more upscale hotels. Although Hopper painted a number of works that suggest hotel and motel rooms, he created only two compositions that depict a lobby, the most transitory of temporary lodging spaces. Hotel Lobby is the more detailed depiction of this space, while Hotel Window, 1955, (fig. 7), is an open space composition that suggests, rather than depicts, the contents of the sparsely furnished lobby. In contrast with the four figures and intricate scene in Hotel Lobby, this painting contains a solitary woman, a couch, and table with a lamp, part of a watercolor on the wall, and a carpet. Its primary focus is the view from an expansive curtained window. Both of these works, however, address the theme of waiting.
Douglas Tallack, in his thought-provoking essay "'Waiting, Waiting': The Hotel Lobby," discusses the hotel lobby as "a semi-public gateway to private places, a space of ambiguous identity, and an uncanny modern space, linked with the genre of the detective novel." Tallack mentions numerous films and novels in which the hotel lobby plays a major role, including The Maltese Falcon, Work of Art and Grand Hotel. In the film The Maltese Falcon, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, characters congregate, spy on, confront, and threaten other characters in a hotel lobby. Work of Art by Sinclair Lewis is the story of a man who desperately wants to design and run a hotel "as an epic work of art." In the film based on Vicki Baum's novel Grand Hotel "the stories of five main characters crisscross the lobby in a succession of meetings, collisions, gazes and glances.... Deals are struck, cons perpetrated, and relationships instigated, developed and broken." The hotel's revolving doors serve as a perpetual merry-go-round for the characters as they come and go, and the elevators transport them to a realm where only those who pay can dwell. While the lobby contains a mixture of people who congregate but do not communicate or even acknowledge each other, the hotel rooms are temporary, private residences for couples, families, and business associates, as well as the place of choice for infidelity and illicit liaisons.
The pathway from the hotel lobby to the private spaces is from the revolving door through the lobby to the reception desk, the hotel clerk, and finally the elevator. Before arriving at the elevator the hotel guest must sign in and provide a means of payment and some personal information in order to obtain a room and a key. The information given to the clerk may be honest, partially deceptive, or completely false depending on the circumstances of the hotel stay. The revolving door suggests that not everyone who enters will become a guest at the hotel. There may be no available rooms, or they could be too expensive, or the hotel may be just a meeting place, in which case the lobby is both the starting and ending point of the visit. The hotel lobby changes with each movement of the revolving door that connects it to the outside world. The lobby can be a haven from the street, but it can also be an intimidating place for those who wish to remain anonymous. Although the population of the lobby is transient, people have a tendency to stare, which is a silent, unwanted communication that others often counteract by reading or by hiding behind a newspaper. Reading is the most popular defense mechanism for people alone in a public space. The hotel lobby is primarily a place for waiting, a transient space where strangers briefly congregate but rarely communicate.
Hotel rooms always held meaning for Hopper, and he painted several examples of this subject during his career. However, the numerous hotel lobbies that Hopper must have passed through alone or with his wife did not stir his interest and imagination enough to result in a related composition until 1943, when, at the age of 61, he created Hotel Lobby. The passing of time and the transience of life probably took on greater significance as Hopper passed this milestone birthday. A temporary space, short stay, and the emphasis on waiting, characteristics associated with a hotel lobby, might have held deeper meaning for the artist at this point in his life.
Films and novels could have served to spark his interest in the topic, especially the detective-story depiction of the hotel lobby as a meeting place for the protagonists. The Maltese Falcon appeared on screen in its second version in 1941 and is considered to be the first of the film noir genre in Hollywood. Starring Humphrey Bogart, it is a richly textured mystery thriller in which the private-eye confronts the gangster in a hotel lobby as the villain attempts to hide behind a newspaper. The film noir style, with its emphasis on shadowy settings, odd angles, and eerie lighting, contained elements that were already a part of Hopper's style. He would have understood the genre in a much deeper sense than the average viewer and presumably would have enjoyed the mixture of mystery, romance, and thriller along with the complexity of plot in these films. Hopper frequented movies when he was between paintings. According to a friend, the artist confessed, "When I don't feel in the mood for painting I go on a regular movie binge!" Since Hopper worked slowly and spent a great deal of time thinking about his subjects before approaching his canvas, he would have had considerable time to attend films.
The cinema was just one of the inspirations for Hopper's oil paintings. Elements in Edgar Degas' work, especially his choice of ordinary subjects and people, odd perspectives, cut-off images, and complex structure, parallel Hopper's unusual language. All these elements are visible in Hotel Lobby, and, even more telling, there is a hint of familial discord, a theme often detected in Degas' paintings. The most obvious example is The Bellelli Family (fig. 8), which not only alludes to a family in crisis, but also shows standing and seated figures similar to the couple in Hotel Lobby. In Degas' image the woman looks straight ahead in stoic disregard of her husband, whose face is turned toward his family. In Hotel Lobby the older man looks straight ahead while his wife gazes in his direction. The man's coat is draped over the arm closest to the woman, which creates a barrier between the two figures. A comparable barrier is created by the table in Degas' painting. The sense of psychological distance in both compositions is strong.
Hotel Lobby's emphasis on a dysfunctional relationship is not unusual in Hopper's work. He broached this topic earlier in his career with paintings such as Room in New York, 1932, and Cape Cod Evening, 1935. Beginning with Hotel Lobby in 1943, Hopper painted six canvases addressing the theme of discontented couples. In 1949 he created Summer in the City (fig. 9), in which a woman sits on the edge of a single bed in front of a nude man who is lying face down. Neither person seems happy with what has transpired between them. There is nothing in the room but the couple, a subtle indication of the source of their problem.
Since Hopper painted only about two canvases a year, the two that he created in 1952 -- both focused on alienated couples -- might reflect a difficult period in his own marriage. Sea Watchers (fig. 10) shows a seated couple staring at the ocean. The man leans forward, seemingly drawn to the water. At first glance, the couple appear to be Hopper's usual figures lost in thought; but the two wooden posts enveloped in chains on the left foreground set against a dark background, with an ominous wind blowing above, may refer to the couple's sense of being trapped. That same year Hopper broached the subject more directly in Hotel by the Railroad (fig. 11). Here a woman dressed in a slip sits in a chair and reads while her husband, cigarette in hand, looks longingly at the railroad tracks below. Jo wrote in her diary: "Wife better watch husband & tracks below window." Several years later, in 1956, Hopper painted Four Lane Road (fig. 12). Jo noted in her diary entry for this work: "...an old man sitting outside his gas station & wife leaning out window." She later continued her description: "The man sits in the sun bearing witness -- in quiet peace but the wife at window is more vocal." The painting mimics the relationship that Hopper had with Jo, who often resorted to shouting in the hopes of obtaining a reaction from her introspective husband, who adeptly ignored her.
The final painting in this series, Excursion into Philosophy, 1959, (fig. 13) is a particularly tragic depiction of a dejected man seated on the edge of a very rigid bed in front of a woman facing away but with her buttocks in full view and a prominent focus of the painting. In her biography of Edward Hopper, Gail Levin noted about this painting: "Jo evidently failed to recognize that he [Hopper] had painted an image offering parallels to their own long-standing sexual tensions, focusing on the female's posterior and the discomfiture of the male." Levin is referring to a letter Jo wrote in which she complained early in her marriage: "I, so subnormal not enjoying attacks from the rear."
Photographers picked up on Hopper and Jo's tense relationship and emphasized it in their photographs of the two. Louise Dahl-Wolfe, in her 1932 photograph (fig. 14), shows Hopper looking slightly away from the camera while Jo, with one arm around her husband, faces left. She seems to be contemplating something other than the photo session, making her display of affection seem insincere. Posing the couple in front of their antique portrait of three children adds another element of tension, since it suggests their childless state. In a 1960 photograph by Arnold Newman (fig. 15), the couple is completely separated. The aging Hopper is seated on a foreground bench while Jo stands as a tiny afterthought in the background beside their summer home in South Truro. It is possible that the tensions perceived by these photographers may have influenced the artist's choice of subject matter in some of his paintings and his method of working through his ideas.
Hopper created his dramatic and provocative compositions with painstaking care, sketching reality and then altering it to suit his purpose and vision. His most intriguing works of art are his interiors. Composed like stage sets with appropriate stage lighting, these paintings depict everyday scenes, places that people seldom notice or care about, and are populated with introspective figures that seem oblivious to their surroundings. Hopper's interiors rarely show specific places. Most of his views are a combination of objects and scenes that he composed in his studio based on sketches he had made of New York City sites during walks, elevated train rides, or trips to the inexpensive restaurants that he and his wife frequented. The city is filled with subjects for the artist to paint, but for Hopper a scene had to mean something to him, touch a part of his inner self that he desired to express. "I look all the time for something that suggests something to me," Hopper said. "Then I think about it. Just to paint a representation or a design is not hard. But to express a thought in painting is." It was very difficult for Hopper to find a subject that sparked his interest or stirred his imagination, which is why he completed so few canvases each year. "It takes a long time for an idea to strike," he explained. "Then I have to think about it for a long time. I don't start painting until I have it all worked out in my mind. I'm all right when I get to the easel." Even his completed canvases sometimes did not satisfy his goals, because the process of creating a composition resulted in losses and additions that interfered with his vision. He tried to express his frustration in a 1933 statement:
Later, in a conversation with Brian O'Doherty, he said, "I was never able to paint what I set out to paint."
Hopper wanted to create more than mere observations or frivolous depictions of an imagined reality and had only a passing interest in a composition's formal qualities. In a letter to Charles H. Sawyer, the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Hopper wrote:
Hopper's method of using sketches for his interiors involved altering those images using his memory and imagination. Some of the preliminary drawings for Hotel Lobby are highly detailed images, while others are quick sketches of objects, such as shoes, hands, clothes, and architectural elements. The finished oil painting unites the real and the imagined with the artist's emotional response to his subject, a process critical to the success of his compositions.
Hopper transferred his inner thoughts to canvas by working out ideas through sketches, producing one to more than fifty preliminary drawings. There are fifty-three extant sketches for New York Movie, 1939, many of them architectural renderings of various New York theaters. Only one sketch exists for Hotel Window, the artist's second version of a hotel lobby. Hopper abandoned his original concept of a lobby in the process of sketching Western Motel in favor of a motel room for the final canvas (fig. 16). His preliminary sketches are sometimes the result of direct observation, but the final canvas is a creation from Hopper's imagination rather than an artistic interpretation of an observed reality. In a 1956 interview Hopper's response to a question on the source of Hotel Window applies to much of his creative process: "It's nothing accurate at all, just an improvisation of things I've seen. It's no particular hotel lobby, but many times I've walked through the Thirties from Broadway to Fifth Avenue and there are a lot of cheesy hotels there."
The progression from paper to paint reveals the long process of turning sketches into a finished canvas. Ten sketches for Hotel Lobby, with varying degrees of detail, are known. There is no indication of the order in which the sketches were composed, but a careful study offers a likely sequence. The first sketch (fig. 17) appears to have been made from direct observation of an actual hotel lobby containing two seated figures separated by a table and lamp. Along the same wall are a curtained opening, a registration desk, and a painting. The stairway and railing cut across the front of the curtained doorway on the left. In the next sketch (fig. 18) Hopper focused on a single figure and the curtained doorway, omitted the table lamp, and added another painting, separated from the first by what appears to be a wall sconce. Beneath this sketch are architectural details. Figure 19 shows a reorganization of the space and its elements. The stairwell is moved to the back of the canvas, and a figure, probably a male, stands in an open doorway to the left of the stairs. The woman is seated to the left of the doorway with an empty chair next to her and a painting above. The floor, which gave the impression of a carpet in the previous sketches, now appears to be tiled.
Hopper continued to refine his composition with greater detail in the next sketch (fig. 20). In it he removed the stairs and placed three people on the left, two ambiguous figures seated next to a standing man who faces the figure in the chair next to him. A curtain was added to the rear doorway, and architectural elements that would eventually become columns were placed on the reception desk. The floor stripe was added, and there is a hint of a beamed ceiling, along with a second painting on the side wall. The next sketch is double-sided. One side provides a rough diagram of the room, which Hopper appears to have abandoned (fig. 21). On its reverse, however, additional elements were added in a broadly executed sketch (fig. 22). The revolving door was given shape and dimension, and the artist returned to a single painting on the wall, which in this version is adorned with an elaborate frame. Architectural columns and features were added to the reception desk, and the diagonal stripe on the floor was darkened to enhance its connection to the revolving door and reception desk. The stripe serves not only to divide the composition, but also refers to the path a visitor takes after entering the hotel. Although Hopper seems to have arrived at his preferred concept by this point in his sketching, he still continued to alter and modify. In his next drawing (fig. 23), the second seated figure on the left is omitted; the remaining three, now detailed, figures are placed in their final positions, as is the elevator. The last sketch (fig. 24) completes the design of the space. Although Hopper had eliminated the figure next to the couple in his previous sketch, he brought her back into the final drawing. Hopper also expressed in greater detail the architecture: the ceiling, desk, revolving door, curtained doorway, and elevator. In all these renderings, Hopper's standing male figure appears to be conversing with the seated woman. The sketches indicate he wanted the two figures to be viewed as a couple rather than strangers passing through the lobby. The finished composition suggests a more ambiguous relationship because of the lack of communication, but the woman's gaze in the man's direction alludes to the artist's original concept.
Although it is difficult to tell in the sketches, Hopper's painted couple appear to be similar in age to himself and his wife, both just past sixty when Hotel Lobby was produced. In the completed composition, the man standing beside the woman's chair stares straight ahead at nothing in particular, lost in thought and seemingly oblivious to the world around him. A long coat is draped over his right arm and his thumb rests in the pocket of his vest. He is well dressed, in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, and polished black shoes that reflect the light. The man is tall and thin, with the characteristics and introspective demeanor associated with Hopper. The artist may have posed in front of a mirror for this figure, a technique Hopper employed for Nighthawks. The older woman, seated in a blue overstuffed chair gazes at the man as if expecting a response to a comment. The painting reflects the lack of communication that was so palpable in the Hopper household that Jo once complained: "Sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn't thump when it hits bottom."
Hopper made a single sketch that detailed the older woman's clothing and hands, indicating that he once thought of having her hold a glove (fig. 25). The finished figure is very close to the sketch. The woman wears a black feathered hat and fur coat, with dress and shoes similar to those in the sketch. The coat belonged to Jo, who, as usual, modeled for the female figures. Fur would seem quite extravagant and out of character for Jo's usually frugal manner of dressing. Luxuries were almost unheard of in the Hopper household. In a 1971 article on Hopper, James Mellow mentioned her frugality. "Once in a moment of extravagance, Hopper bought his wife a fur coat and Jo was angry with him for six months." It appears that Jo's anger did not keep her from wearing her husband's unwanted purchase. Her fur coat is a repeatedly used prop in Hopper's compositions, and Jo was often seen wearing it at museum openings.
Hopper made a partial sketch of the young woman reading on the sheet on which the older woman appears, as well as a more detailed sketch of her alone (fig. 26). Until this point, Hopper had indicated that the seated figure was male. Her face and hairstyle resemble his wife's, but in the painting he alters these features (fig. 27). She no longer has Jo's bangs and her parted, now blond, hair looks stiffer and straighter than in the sketch. The change is indicative of Hopper's desire to create an alluring young woman. The skirted chair in the sketch is probably similar to one the Hoppers had in their apartment and is more delicate in contour than the chairs in the painting. The rigidity of the painted chairs reflects the hard angles and lines of the composition.
The colors Hopper chose for the women's dresses are revealing of his intentions. Red might at first seem an odd color for an older woman -- Jo calls it "coral" in her journal -- but the color is usually the choice of extroverts and can signify temper or anger. The blue of the younger woman's dress symbolizes youth and gives a feeling of distance, which Hopper enhances by separating the younger woman from the other figures through space and architecture.
The young woman seems to be biding her time until someone arrives. It is obvious that she does not intend to go outside, since the couple's heavy coats imply that the temperature is too cold to be venturing out in a short-sleeve dress. The revealing short dress and thin-strapped, high-heel open shoes give her a sensual quality, which may have caught the eye of the desk clerk in Hopper's finished canvas. Her legs are oddly turned toward the desk while her feet face forward. This seemingly strange distortion exposes the back of her legs slightly beyond her knees in a suggestive manner and affords the desk clerk, whose face is hidden behind the lamp, an unobstructed view of the front of her legs. The inclusion of the concealed figure of the clerk places the voyeur inside the painting, instead of outside in the form of the viewer, who seems to be occupying a space in the lobby. But, because of Hopper's distorted perspective, the viewer feels suspended in midair, looking down on the young woman.
The clerk's presence in the painting is problematic, because he is omitted from Jo's description in the ledger that she kept of Hopper's work and also does not appear in the sketch Hopper made to accompany his wife's narrative (figs. 28 and 29). While it is not unusual to find details in the ledger that differ from the finished painting, a figure is an unlikely oversight. The fact that the lamp and its reflected light are described and sketched in the ledger indicates that both Hopper and Jo had taken the space into consideration when making their entries. The position of the woman's legs, with her knees pointing to the desk, suggests that the area plays an important role in the composition's tension and drama. The angle of the green stripe on the floor points to the reception desk, emphasizing its importance, as does the red outlined floor tile surrounding its base. One explanation may lie in the older man's deliberately frontal gaze compared to the clerk's single exposed eye, which is positioned in such a manner that it is difficult to tell whether he is looking at something below him or in front of him. This mostly hidden figure attempts to conceal his interest in the woman just as the older man seems to be doing, even though it is likely that both men are affected by her presence. It is even possible that the clerk is acting as Hopper's alter ego. While the prim and proper gentleman (Hopper) completely ignores the woman, the clerk surreptitiously indulges his interest. Both figures are the artist's creation and both could represent opposing sides of the artist's personality. In the ledger it is possible that neither the artist nor his wife wanted to address this issue, so the figure behind the desk is ignored in their entries. The clerk is not present in any of Hopper's preliminary sketches. Only what is presumably the final sketch (fig. 24) shows that space, but the area is so roughly drawn that it is difficult to discern the artist's intention. Close scrutiny of the sketch suggests an outline of a lamp but not a figure. A microscopic examination of this area in the painting indicates that the figure was placed in the space after the lamp had been painted. This sequence suggests that Hopper may not have conceived of this figure until the area was completed. The final placement of the shadowy clerk may be the artist's suggestion of the mystery surrounding people waiting in a hotel lobby.
For Hopper, the painting was still a work in progress, and he continued to make changes from the final sketch. A conservation study of Hotel Lobby using X-ray and infrared reflectography reveals that Hopper was comfortable with his ideas once he began to paint. The examination showed very few alterations to the canvas, the most visible being the position of the young woman's head (fig. 30). It also revealed that Hopper outlined a few areas using dark blue paint (fig. 31). The finished canvas contains several alterations from his preliminary drawings, and it appears that most of them were worked out in his mind before he placed anything on the canvas. There is evidence of at least a partial underdrawing (fig. 32). Some of the drawing may have been obliterated by the paint layer, so it is difficult to ascertain how many of the details of the painting were drawn before they were painted. It seems, however, that Hopper did not complete a detailed sketch and then paint over it. More likely, he blocked out a few elements to help him organize his composition. The preliminary sketches are a reflection of the artist's thought processes, but the finished composition contains dramatic changes that altered the mood, including the lack of communication between the older couple, the replacement of the seated male with the young woman reading, and the addition of the clerk behind the desk.
It is also obvious that Hopper continued to organize his space as he painted, since the spatial construction does not adhere to what appears to be the final sketch. The green stripe on the floor has been altered so that it turns towards the desk as well as dividing the composition. The division alludes to the separation between youth and old age. The angle of the stripe makes it an arrow, and the green tile outlined in red surrounding the reception desk serves as an enclosure. Both of these elements draw attention to the desk and the clerk. The space the couple occupies is more confined than the area around the woman, suggesting that the couple is trapped by circumstance and age while the girl has the freedom that youth affords. In another deviation from the sketch, Hopper organized space so that each of the figural groups has its own perspective (fig. 33). Two separate receding perspective lines are drawn to the couple and the clerk, while the perspective lines to the young woman come from above the figure so that she is seen from a bird's-eye view. This allows for a fuller view of this figure than otherwise would have been possible. To make all these perspectives work, Hopper expanded the space, creating a view similar to what would be seen through a wide-angle lens or a convex mirror.
The ambiguity that results from the manipulation of time, space, and perspective in Hotel Lobby also emerges in the dynamic interplay of color and mood in the painting. Cool greens and blues dominate the canvas, framed by the warm hues of the revolving door and lobby desk. Yellow highlights fall in geometric shapes along the floor and wall. Bright accents of color in the older woman's red dress and the younger woman's blond hair punctuate the scene, drawing the viewer's attention to these figures. Yet there is a tension between the mood of these characters and the hues of the painting. The stoicism of the figures stands in contrast to the high-key tonalities in the work. Frozen in the hotel lobby, their impassivity resists the energy of Hopper's color palette.
The perplexing nature of the canvas is further accentuated by Hopper's use of indeterminate light sources. There are no windows in Hotel Lobby, which is one of the very few paintings besides Hopper's theater interiors where a window is not present or obviously suggested. Light comes through the barely articulated revolving door and from an unseen area between the ceiling beams. The rectangular strip of sunlight on the floor points to the young woman, who is brightly lit from an invisible source behind her. It is possible that the light source of the interior is meant to suggest newly available fluorescent lights, as a bright overhead light illuminates the framed landscape, the couple, and the two ionic columns. Yet the shadows cast are those of incandescent lighting, falling sharply across the wall. Some of the light is also oddly blocked by a beam that casts a shadow behind the older man, which dims his illumination. The only areas of light that stream from obvious sources are the daylight from the revolving door and the light from the lamp behind the desk highlighting the center of the area's wood frame and casting a dim glow on the clerk's face and the desk top. The inconsistent light sources add a disconcerting quality to the scene.
Light and shadow, along with Hopper's choice of architecture and props, are intermingled to accentuate the difference between the figures. The shadow cast by the blonde's legs points to the couple's side of the room, a possible allusion to her future, while the other woman's shadow is blocked by her feet. The woman's gray hair, feathered hat, fur coat, and proper black shoes suggest age, while the girl's cutout high heels with their thin straps, her long blond hair, and short dress epitomize youth and vibrancy. There is a wide separation between the older woman's chair and the two vacant chairs to her right alluding to an emptiness and distance that is not present on the younger woman's side. Although the chair next to her is also empty, it appears close enough to be attached. In fact, her arm seems to be resting on the arm of the other chair. The proximity of these two chairs suggests that the young woman is waiting for someone to sit next to her. Hopper uses elements from the past to suggest age, including the Victorian painting behind the couple, its early American landscape reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt; the two antique-inspired ionic columns that support the top of the reception desk; and the beam ceiling, which reflects Hopper's interest in sixteenth-century interiors.
The windowless room insulates the figures from the outside world. Because nothing from the busy exterior street interferes, the emphasis remains on waiting. The dark dining room behind the man is uninviting, as is the elevator, with its dark grille, which looks more like the entrance to a prison than a mechanism for reaching the rooms beyond the lobby. The shadows, darkness, and unexplained light sources create mystery, which makes us question the meaning of an otherwise mundane situation. Who are these people? Why are they waiting? Where are they going? When and who will come through the revolving door for them? Are they trapped? Does a hotel as a transient space suggest the transience of life? Is the revolving door a metaphor for the speed at which time passes? Does the juxtaposition of the figures suggest that youth suddenly becomes old age? Such questions are often asked in search of the meaning behind Hopper's paintings, and their answers are as numerous as the people who have seen his art and whose own personalities reflect their responses.
Hopper worked out his concept for a painting in as many sketches as it took for the idea to coalesce in his mind. The final canvas often contains major and minor adjustments that create the drama, mystery, and sense of alienation that are so much a part of the artist's work. In the finished version of Hotel Lobby, Hopper eliminated any intimacy or connection between the figures in the sketches by altering poses, changing the gender of the seated figure, and adding dramatic contrasts between light and dark that illuminate and separate the salient components of the composition. Hopper moved from paper to paint when he was comfortable that his creation would be a reflection of a portion of himself. He hoped that his work achieved its purpose. He said, "What lives in a painting is the personality of the painter."
Hopper's persistent claim that he was after himself when he created a composition is born out in his work. An analysis of his oeuvre indicates that he has captured on canvas a diary of his most intimate thoughts, just as his wife kept her written diary. An understanding of an artist and his work is usually achieved through his or her correspondence and records, but Hopper's legacy of great art is the primary account available of this very private man. His personal views of American life are revealed through careful study of his creations. Hopper's journey from paper to paint in Hotel Lobby takes viewers on a trip through his psyche that is both revealing and mysterious.
1 Gail Levin, Edward Hopper (Naefels, Switzerland: Bonfini Press Corporation, 1984), 7.
2 Edward Hopper, "Statements by Four Artists," Reality 1 (Spring 1953), 8.
3 Edward Hopper, "John Sloan and the Philadelphians," The Arts 11 (April 1927), 74 - 75, quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 2nd ed. (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), 42.
4 "The Silent Witness," Time, December 24, 1956, 37.
5 Janice Marie Coco and John Sloan, John Sloan's Women: A Psychoanalysis of Vision (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2004), 46.
6. For more information on the parallels between Hopper and Vermeer, see Philip Leider's "Vermeer and Hopper," Art in America 80, no. 3 (March 2001): 96 - 103.
7 Edward Hopper, letter to Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, February 1935, quoted in Robert Hobbs, Edward Hopper (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1987), 23.
8 Katherine Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 135.
9 Levin, Edward Hopper, 1984, 39.
10 Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993), 38.
11 Brian O'Doherty, "Hopper's Look," in Edward Hopper, ed. Sheena Wagstaff and David Anfam (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 87 - 8.
12 O'Doherty, "Hopper's Look," 86.
13 Kuh, 135.
14 Kuh, 140.
15 Brian O'Doherty, "Portrait: Edward Hopper," Art in America 53 (December 1964), 72.
16 See Jean Gillies, "The Timeless Space of Edward Hopper," Art Journal 31 (Summer 1972): 404 - 12; Sheena Wagstaff and David Anfam, eds., Edward Hopper (London: Tate Publishing, 2004); and the recent treatment of Hopper's work in Carol Troyen et aI., Edward Hopper (Boston: MFA Publications, 2007).
17 "The Silent Witness," 36.
18 Douglas Tallack, '''Waiting, Waiting': The Hotel Lobby," in The 3 Cities Project: Urban Space and Representation (Nottingham, England: University of Nottingham, 1998), http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/3cities/tallack1.htm (accessed July 5, 2007).
21 Gail Levin, "Edward Hopper: The Influence of Theater and Film," Arts Magazine 55 (October 1980), 126.
22 I would like to thank long-time IMA docent Terry Jones for this insightful observation.
23 Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 342.
24 Levin, Catalogue Raisonné, 356.
25 Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 525.
26 Ibid., 179.
27 "Painting: A Certain Alienated Majesty," Time (May 26, 1967), 72.
28 Suzanne Burrey, "Edward Hopper: The Emptying Spaces," The Arts Digest 29 (April 1955), 8.
29 Edward Hopper, "Notes on Painting," in Edward Hopper: Retrospective Exhibition, ed. Alfred H. Barr (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1933), 17.
30 O'Doherty, "Hopper's Look," 96, n. 19.
31 Edward Hopper to Charles H. Sawyer, October 19, 1939, from Smithsonian American Art Museum, "An Edward Hopper Scrapbook," Smithsonian Institution (1999), http://americanart.si.edu/hopper/index.html (accessed July 9, 2007).
32 For another study of Hopper's sketches as they relate to his finished work, see Sheila Hollihan-Elliot, "Edward Hopper: Composing for Impact," The Artist's Magazine, July/August 2007, 78 - 84.
33 Edward Hopper to William Johnson in an unpublished interview on October 30, 1956, quoted in Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 493.
34 Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 349.
35 James R. Mellow, "Edward Hopper and His World," New York Times Magazine, September 5, 1971, 17.
36 Mellow, 17.
37 Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 359.
38 "The Silent Witness," 37.
About the Author
Harriet G. Warkel, curator of American art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, earned her master's degree in art history from Indiana University. She has curated numerous exhibitions for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, including Edward Hopper: Paper to Paint and A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans for which she wrote the accompany catalogues. She has also written numerous articles for American Art Review.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 5, 2009, with permission of the author and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2009.
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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to the author and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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