Edward Hopper’s search for ideal forms

One of the remarkable things about the work of Edward Hopper is that his style makes his paintings so immediately recognisable. In developing this characteristic style, Hopper is exploring Plato’s ideal form through a series of recurrent images. In many cases, he does this through the structuring of the paintings but in some other paintings, he does this through the relationship between the people in his paintings and the flow of time and events around them.

His paintings of the yachts off the coast of Massachusetts all have a similar prospective. The painter stands back and sees the yacht located in the broad seascape which is layered into the coastline and the skyline in the background.


Groundswell is an interesting combination of classic Hopper seascape structure with strong horizontal lines but it also combines a theme from many other paintings where a group of people gazing at something that the viewer cannot see.


Lee Shore is also an interesting combination of ideas with the stylised yacht sailing past an equally stylised house of the type that Hopper so frequently painted.  It is also an exploration of the point between the landscape and the seascape with the yacht in the house occupying immediately adjacent spaces.


Mary McKeen


The Long Leg  is structurally very similar to Mary McKeen. The yacht is located on the water in the foreground, there is a strip of land in the mid-ground and sky in the background.

In many of Hopper’s urban and rural landscapes, elements of his thematic and stylistic unity is clearly visible. In the following examples, it is the structural stratification of the painting that is so noticeable.  There is a group of landscapes that are recognisable within Hopper’s thematic and structural approaches.

In East River (New York City) and Railroad Sunset, an urban landscape highlighted against a luminescent sunset while Approaching the City is scene just before something happens, namely the arrival in the city.

east_river_edward_hopper East River (New York City)

hoppersunwebbg  Railroad Sunset

041.tif Approaching the City

Approaching the City  Is also typified by a space in the centre of the picture that is a variation on a theme of the  “sunlight on the side of a house”.

Hills South Truro
Hills South Truro

In Hills South Truro,  the hills in the middle ground loom over the small house and appear like large waves rolling towards the shore. A similar portrayal of a landscape that looks like a seascape is seen in Lighthouse Hill 1927.

 Lighthouse Hill 1927
Lighthouse Hill 1927

It’s an interesting reversal of the imagery. The landscape, the contours of the hills, become the waves moving towards a lighthouse and the small cottage. Here, Hopper appears to be experimenting with the form of the landscape and exploring the similarities between the contours the landscape and the shape of waves crushing onto the shore. searching perhaps for the ideal form.

These two paintings may provide a useful insight into one of Hopper’s preoccupations when seen in relation to one another political Hopper painting.

In Excursion into philosophy,  Hopper paints a man looking at a patch of sunlight falling on the carpet in his room.


Jo [Hopper’s wife] recorded cryptically, “The open book is Plato, re-read too late,”.

There is a hint that the man in the painting is contemplating Plato’s idea of ideal forms which are distinct from the world of the senses and constitute the highest form of reality. In the painting, the man turns his back on the world of the senses, shown in the naked body of his lover, in favour of the contemplation of higher and ideal forms which are represented in a patch of sunlight.

It is possible to see the characteristic style so evident in Hopper’s paintings as a search for the ideal form or for a visual archetype co-responding to an ideal form. The yachts in his seascapes are pared back and elemental yachts: small gaff rigged yawls.

So many of the people in his paintings are poised between events, almost at a point where time has stopped and retirements come independent of the immediate and sensual world.

In endeavouring to document and explain Opera’s depiction of the ideal forms, one is constantly confronted with the difficulties that the critic and commentator must do this through language whereas Hopper chose to do it through imagery saying, “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”

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