A theme that runs through all of Hopper’s work is the image of the sun-lit shape. Many of his paintings, both his landscapes, urban landscapes and his interiors, feature large areas of bright light. Usually these paintings contain other aesthetic and emotional content.
But in some paintings, Hopper focuses purely on the idea of sunlight falling on walls, often white walls. In both Rooms by the sea and Sun in an empty room, the treatment is sparse and abstract and the focus is on the aesthetics of the shapes.
Rooms by the sea
Sun in an empty room
These two paintings are structurally very similar. The light comes from an open space on the right-hand side, the angles and geometry of the first impact of the light are echoed in the left-hand side of the painting and there is a view of the outside world through a door or window. In Rooms by the sea, the light falls on part of a painting in the next room, illuminating it, but not completely. Sun in an empty room is a brilliant evocation of the asymmetrical geometry and tonal relations of sunlight falling on a wall and floor.
While these two paintings are perhaps the most abstract of Hopper’s treatment of light, there are other paintings which demonstrate his preoccupation and fascination with tonal qualities of light on large objects and their place in the landscape.
Freight car at Truro depicts an abandoned freight car next to a railway line. It’s a large structure slightly misaligned to its surroundings. Its rusted red structure is at odds with the sun drenched landscape of the background.
Freight car at Truro
It’s a striking painting, emphasising the disharmony between the dark reds of the freight car and the more muted tones of the surrounding scenery.
Railroad Train is vintage Hopper. While containing some of the asymmetrical qualities of Freight car at Truro, it contains many of his classic features, strong bands of colour running across the painting and the incomplete picture of the train suggesting, as in so many of his paintings, a story that is strangely interrupted and incomplete.
Like Freight car at Truro, there is a similar asymmetrical quality to Barn and Silo. However, there is a tonal harmony in this painting that doesn’t exist in Freight car at Truro. The tonal gradations from the background hills to the silo in the barn and then to the golden colours of the grass in the foreground of the painting complete the geometry of the painting.
Barn and Silo
Many of the themes and ideas of Barn and Silo and Freight car at Truro are present in Four Lane Road. There is a large red rusting structure’ which is slightly out of kilter with its environment, in this case, an urban landscape. There is the same sense of decay, established with the contrast between the red rust and the sleeping-grey background ,that is present in Freight car at Truro.
Four Lane Road
This painting is characterised by punctuations. The sweep of the bridge, which is echoed by the curve of the structure in the right foreground, is punctuated by the tower which supports the bridge. Both of these curving structures and the tower itself are integrated, both tonally and structurally, into the background of the buildings. And then, plonked in the left-hand side of the painting is the rusting red structure. Masterful.
In Cars and Rocks, we have a wonderful integration of shapes. The two motor cars are parked behind a line of rocks where the shape and structure of the cars runs parallel to the shape and structure of rocks.
Cars and Rocks
The car on the left is square and chunky, as is the rock that it is parked next to. The car in the centre of the picture is a more curved shape which is echoed in the shape of the rocks in front of it. The curve of the rocks the picture is picked up, but fragmented in the foreground, where the dark brown-black of the car bleeds away down the painting.
Gloucester Beach is, in many ways, a unique Hopper painting. It has a relaxed lyricism that is not present in the rest of his work. It is a romantic, idealised beach scene. Figures in the painting through the angst and isolation common to so many of his paintings.
But it still maintains the hallmarks of Hopper’s use of light and structure. There are four structural elements in the painting. three of them serve as background: the sand the ocean and the sky. The fourth element is the figures on the beach.
The visual centre of the painting is the grouping of the people on the beach. They are placed on the edge of a large foreground of sand, slightly bleached by the sunlight. The centre of the painting is dominated by a dark blue strip of ocean which separates the edge of the sand and the washed out sky in the background while serving to anchor the figures on the beach.
The sun-bleached white walls of Ryder’s House stand in contrast to the golden grass and the earthy tones of foreground and background hills. It is very much “geometry and landscape” and like many of Hopper’s paintings of houses, there is a sense of isolation scene.
Like the figures in Gloucester Beach, the house is placed alone running across painting in this case a line of brown hills. In the left background, the blue-gray strand appears to be the sea with the horizon dividing the sea and the clouds whereas on the right-hand side of the picture the distinction is somewhat more blurred and ambiguous. The integration of the structural elements in the picture only serves to highlight the geometrical starkness of the house.
These motifs are part of the broader suite of hoppers were where he examines and explores the place of humans in an urban landscape and objects in houses the rural landscape of the American north-east.
Other Hopper posts