In looking at a wide selection of Edward Hopper’s paintings (something that is possible with the wonders of the internet), one thing that stands out is the compositional similarity between groups of his paintings. In Second Story Sunlight, Sea Watchers, Sunlight on Brownstones, a man and a woman look out of the frame the painting into the sunlight.
The similarity of the compositional elements and the structure of the paintings is quite striking. The couples are posed against a building and are framed by the windows of the building. The upper right of the paintings contains a stylised landscape, typical of Hopper and the structure of the painting leads the viewer’s eye tin the same direction as the subjects are looking. There is also a sense of anticipation in the way the couples are looking at towards the light which is similar to the woman in Woman in the Sun and Morning Sun The structure of the Sea Watchers takes the viewer in the direction that the couple is looking: the downward sloping towels that are blowing on the clothesline, lead the eye to the two bathers, one of whom is leaning forward. This forward inclination of the body combined with a flat sunlit surface of the balcony directs our attention outside the frame of the painting as it does in all of the paintings in this series. This structure is repeated in Sunlight on Brownstones. Here the two figures are reclining backwards ever so slightly, lining them up with the line of the balustrades leading down to the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. The flat line of the road and the scrub on the small hill lead the views eye out of the frame of the picture. In Second Story Sunlight, the structure again is similar. The clean geometrical shapes of the building are framed by the foliage in the background which leads out of the right-hand side of the painting. The balanced body positions of the two figures appears to direct their attention out of the frame of the picture. The final picture in this series People in the Sun, is a masterclass in structure. The structure repeats the compositional themes of the previous three paintings. The people in the painting are looking at something beyond the frame of the painting as in all of the others in this series and their replacement and body position is central to the dynamics of the painting. The solid block of brown and the windows in the building leads the viewer’s eye down to the group of people. There is a visual tension within this group. The man in the left-hand corner of the picture is leaning forward connecting him to the four people in front of him, leaning backwards with the inclination of their body connecting the left-hand side of the painting to the background: road, cornfield, mountains and sky which create long strong lines leading out of the frame of the picture. As in the Sea Watchers, the figures are placed in a large, flat, sun-lit surface whose triangular shape leads out of the frame of the picture. Hopper gives us no clue as to what the subjects are watching. However, the similarity of the structure and composition of so many of the paintings in which people are looking into the sunlight suggests that there is some common element, perhaps some universal vision that they are either contemplating or waiting upon. The man who is reading a book in People in the Sun echoes the man in Excursion into philosophy. One is reading a book, the other has just finished. Jo Hopper suggested that the book in Excursion into philosophy was Plato but provided no more commentary than this cryptic comment. And there is little to be gained by way of explanation of the significance of people reading in Hopper’s paintings but it is a motif that he returned to numerous occasions.
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