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Edward Hopper: ‘The Art of Isolation’

Stella Lyons’ lecture The Art of Isolation delves into the narrative power of Edward Hopper’s art, and what aspects of his personal life, and painting technique, made so many of his pieces vehicles for storytelling.


Nowadays, the word “isolation” conveys the confinement of one’s room, video calls, and the “what ifs” and “this time last year” that each change in season carries, but it’s its transience we cling to; our isolation, as devastating it might be on the mind, has a purpose and a tentative end date. The melancholy of Edward Hopper’s art, however, stems from a deeper sense of loneliness — with an incurable element to it.
Lyons presents Hopper’s melancholic isolation as one of permanence, or as he himself put it, “the loneliness of a large city”. Pieces like Automat, Intermission, and better known Nighthawks, are focused on solitary figures, peered at by viewers from a voyeuristic angle — through the diner’s glass, from the outside looking in, and therefore ignorant to their names or stories. These single figures exist within Hopper’s backdrops without overwhelming our focus, their actions vague.


Lyons regularly reminds us of Josephine Nevinson’s influence on Hopper’s life. Having both married late, they’d experienced living alone, and the feeling of isolation that goes alongside adult independence. An artist herself, Nevinson provided inspiration and critique and was Hopper’s only model. Notes from her diary offer simple descriptions of the Nighthawks’ characters, enough to keep us guessing; the lonely man is described as “dark”, the man in the hat is “hawklike”. Elements of a story neither chooses to tell, opting instead to leave the narrative open.


Hopper’s magic lies there; in the space he chooses to leave empty or fill up with shadow, because we will create the rest of the story from there. It’s power to the viewer’s imagination. Quoting fellow artist Charles Burchfield, Stella Lyons agrees that the atemporal importance of Hopper’s art stems from the fact that he “does not insist upon what the beholder should feel”.

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In the short lecture, Lyons finalises by noting the cinematographic quality of Edward Hopper’s work, both in its potential for narrative, and the chosen dark colour schemes. Often referenced in film, Hitchcock’s quotes stand out, with allusions to House by the Railroad in Days of Heaven.
Hopper’s art, therefore, remains immortal, not because of technique, but because of the power it holds over the viewer; it forces the imagination to fill in the gaps, and in doing so, creates a story that is entirely personal to each one of us.

Image: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper Courtesy of Wikicommons