Edward Hopper is famously quoted as saying “What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Hopper also insisted “I was more interested in the sunlight on the buildings and on the figures than any symbolism.” The effect of sunlight is a continuing theme in his painting and is woven into his paintings as one of the central motifs of his work.
He painted a number of pictures in which sunlight is explicitly mentioned in the title including Morning Sun (1952), Sunlight in Cafeteria (1958), Second Story Sunlight (1960), People in the Sun (1960), A Woman in the Sun (1961), and Sun in an Empty Room (1963) and a number of others where light becomes an essential compositional element of the painting Cape Cod Morning (1950), Seawatchers (1952) and Excursion into Philosophy (1959)
In many of his paintings, the sunlight from a window anchors the subject of the painting in the frame. In Woman in the Sun, the woman (modelled as so many of the women in Hopper’s paintings were, on his wife) stands on a sunlight strip of carpet looking out a window.
The sunlight illuminates the woman’s body and while it anchors her in the painting it also separates and isolates her from the room that surrounds her. Notice how the folds of the sheets on the blanket on the bed are repeated in the hills outside the window and the two curtains frame the wall where a picture hangs. We cannot see what the woman is looking at. Perhaps she has just got out of bed and is enjoying the warmth of the sun. But Hopper has returned to this particular set of ideas and images so frequently that we are tempted to find some significance or meaning in this particular set of repeated images. But it is difficult to do this from a single painting. When we put it next to other paintings it becomes a little easier, but not very easy, to find a common thread of meaning and symbolism in these paintings.
In Morning Sun, a woman sits on a bed looking out a window.
In structure this painting is similar to Woman in he Sun. The light comes in from outside the frame of the painting, falling on the two women, both of whom are formally posed and bathed in light that seems to be the source of their contemplation.
What is striking about this painting, is the way that Hopper uses the light. The front half of the woman’s body is bathed in sunlight and silhouetted against the shadow on the wall. The back half of her body is in shadow and silhouetted by the sunlight falling on the wall. Compositionally, the woman is defined by these two forms of light while, at the same time, the line of her arms and legs provides a visual link between the light that is coming in from the window and the light that is falling on the bed and a light on the wall.
It’s a complex and highly satisfying painting which, like many of Hopper’s paintings hints at, but that not provide any narrative. Perhaps it is wrong to look for a narrative in Hopper’s paintings, although many of his paintings in the Traveler series suggest a narrative, albeit interrupted.
Perhaps the narrative is in the treatment of the light and the paintings with the imagery a replacement of the words in a narrative. This is simply true in the enigmatic Sun in Empty Room and Rooms by the Sea
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