“All the world’s a stage”: Edward Hopper’s Theatre of Painting

The theatre and cinema are the subject of a number of number of Edward Hopper’s paintings.  His painting Sheridan Theatre is one of the very few times when Hopper has painted a specific and identifiable subject.

Sheridan Theatre Edward Hopper

In New York Movie, a beautiful golden-haired girl stands near the exit of the cinema, deep in thought. The film has already started but she appears reluctant to take a seat. This powerful, moody work is typical of so many of Hopper’s paintings with the subject appears at a point of decision.

New York Movie

Is she poised between the dark world of imagination and the lighter world of reality represented by the staircase? It’s impossible to say.  Perhaps she’s just the usherette, bored by repeated showings of the film. In First Row Orchestra, a group of people sit waiting for the curtain to rise and the performance to start. To the right of the painting are some box seats which are framed by the same type of curtains as the stage.  While there are no people in these seats, just as there is no one on the stage, there is a hint that this part of the theatre is both for viewing and for being viewed, the audience as theatre as it were.

First Row Orchestra

It’s a subtle point, but it points to a number of paintings  where Hopper positions his subjects as if they were on stage. Two on the Aisle is similar in theme and content to First Row Orchestra.  Three people are waiting for the concert to start. The young woman is seated in one of the boxes where she can look onto, but is currently ignoring, the two people who are taking their seats. It’s almost anti-theatre, she’s not looking and they are not acting but then there’s no one on the stage either. Like so many of Hopper’s paintings, this is a little frozen  moment when nothing is happening.

Two on the Aisle

Intermission is another theatre painting where nothing is happening.


Well, of course, that’s because it’s the intermission. Hopper seems drawn to these times In the theatre. These paintings link the ideas of the theatre and the world of the imagination to the points in time where people are waiting for the next thing to happen.


The theme of intermissions is recurrent in Hopper’s painting. Office at Night, Room in New York, Hotel Window and Nighthawks

There is one theatre painting that stands in sharp contrast to the intermission paintings. It’s Girly Show which is the exuberant antithesis of the intermission paintings.


The performer or artiste, modelled by Hopper’s wife Jo, strides onto the stage, her red hair and scarlet nipples clashing with her blue cape and  high-heeled shoes. Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, who wrote two books about Jo Hopper, said of the  The Girlie Show   “It is one of the angriest paintings I’ve ever seen'” Hopper has certainly managed to capture the tackiness of the situation.

While many of the subjects of Hopper’s paintings are waiting for the action to appear on stage, many others appear to be placed on, or about to enter, a stage. In Sea Watchers, the two subjects it on a platform stage staring out of the frame of the painting.


It’s similar in People in the Sun. The subjects are positioned on a platform, both audience and actors, looking out beyond the frame of the picture.

People In The Sun

 There is a subtle variation in this idea in a number of other paintings where the subject is about to step out into a light-filled space, Much as an actor makes an entry onto the stage


Carolina Morning, High Noon and Summertime are examples of where the subject, again modelled by Hopper’s wife Jo, is stepping out from a doorway.  If we wish to see this as an actor coming out onto the stage, there is a conspicuous lack of an audience. But in the theatre paintings, there is also conspicuous lack of actors on the stage.

It is at this point in an analysis of Hopper’s work that speculation begins to replace analysis. This group of paintings are mirror images of each other. In one set, we have people in front of an empty stage with the curtains closed: The world of reality viewing the world of imagination but there’s nothing there. In the other set, we have the world of the imagination, the actor about to step on the stage, about to confront the world of reality but again, there’s nothing there.  Is this a dichotomy that Hopper felt? Ultimately it’s all speculation on the part of the viewer.

This kind of analysis is now possible with the massive power of the internet where it is possible to see almost all of Hopper’s works and seek to draw out connecting themes and motifs from his work.

Even those of us who were fortunate enough to see the 2007  Boston Museum of Fine Arts  exhibition of Hopper’s work only saw the period of Hopper’s greatest achievements comprising fifty oil paintings, thirty watercolors, and twelve prints, including the favorites Nighthawks, Chop Suey, and Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

And in endeavouring to  create these connections it is always worth remembering Hopper’s famous quotation: “if you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint”

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