One of Edward Hopper's last great masterpieces in private hands, Chair Car exemplifies the hauntingly detached urban scenes for which the artist is most renowned. He has placed his figures on a train--a locale consistent with his frequent choice of subjects that portray America as a new and sometimes gritty industrialized nation. The colors are few, chiefly green, yellow, blue and white, and serve to emphasize the essential simplicity of the scene. The composition of Chair Car is likewise straightforward and pared down to its essential elements. The passengers are seated apart and no one makes direct contact with the others. Only the figure at left appears to glance at a fellow passenger.
As in most of his best works, Hopper presents in Chair Car a tableau of people who play out personal dramas in a stage-like or even cinematic space. These solitary and seemingly lonely people are central to the work, and a major theme in Hopper's art throughout his career. In Chair Car, the paucity of passengers and spatial emptiness may also imply an anxious emotional state, although alternative readings are certainly possible, particularly with the artist's use of sunlight as a note of warmth and a counterpoint to the implied loneliness of the travelers. In this and similar scenes, Hopper offers ambiguity and complexity--suited to modern life--while transforming the familiar with almost magical effect.
How Hopper came to choose one theme over another was a mystery he claimed even for himself. He described this selection as an attempt to unify his vision with what he called his "inner life." In a rare comment on his working method, the artist remarked that, "My aim in paintings is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects rather than others, I do not exactly know unless it is that I believe them to be the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience." (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 163)
The artist's interest in the solitude of people may be rooted in his own character. He was a loner who had few close friends. In 1931, the artist Péne du Bois described Hopper as "a quiet, retiring, restrained man who has been working for a number of years in New York and Paris, almost as a hermit, rarely exhibiting and rarely appearing in those places where artists gather, though known by and knowing most of them." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, p. 120)
In his early years, Hopper studied painting at the New York School of Art under the guidance of the leading promoter of the Ash Can School, the artist Robert Henri. His classmates at the school included Gifford Beal, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Guy Péne du Bois. While transforming and modernizing his style over his lifetime, Hopper always embraced a central teaching of Henri: to paint the city and street life he knew best. Over twenty years later, Hopper wrote of Henri, "No single figure in recent American art has been so instrumental in setting free the hidden forces that can make of the art of this country a living expression of its character and its people...Of Henri's renown as a teacher everyone knows; of his enthusiasm and his power to energize his students I had firsthand knowledge. Few teachers of art have gotten as much out of their pupils, or given them as great an initial impetus." (as quoted in Edward Hopper, pp. 17-8)
While Hopper always maintained a fundamentally realist approach to his art, he also strove to capture a deeper level of meaning in his paintings. "Great art," Hopper wrote, "is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form and design. The term 'life' as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it applies all of its existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature's phenomena before it can again be great." (as quoted in Edward Hopper, p. 164)
As an aspect of the natural world, a central element of nearly all of Hopper's great works is light. In Chair Car, he creates dappled patterns of light and shade and uses light to unify the scene. Light may also play a thematic role. It fills the car and with its brightness transforms the windows into opaque shapes, obscuring the outside world, and thereby enhancing the sense of mystery underlying the scene. Hopper's masterful use of light to convey emotion can also be seen in A Woman in the Sun 1960 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), in which light acts as much as a symbol as a means of illumination. In this work, a nude woman stands in sunlight before a window. Though the image suggests isolation and resignation, the woman also seems to draw warmth from the sun. Discussing this painting, Robert Hobbs notes the suggestiveness that such a potent depiction of light offers, and describes the work in terms that might apply equally well to Chair Car: "She seems to accept as her fate whatever the light represents...Although she is illuminated by the light, she seems to be more part of the shadowy room; enlightenment, inspiration, knowledge--whatever the light symbolizes--is a momentary condition for both this woman and the enclosed space." (Edward Hopper, p. 142)
In Chair Car the naturalness of the light and the ordinariness of the scene suggest a quality akin to a photographic snapshot or a film still depicting a moment on a train. The composition offers a moment in an unfolding story which has been interrupted by the artist or the viewer. Combined with the anticipation of what will happen next, Hopper's depiction of an instant in time contributes to a slight atmosphere of unease. As Robert Hobbs writes, "In his art Hopper stops the narrative that constitutes a drive in an automobile or the montage of a movie to focus on strangely isolated stills. Seen by themselves, these stills are mysterious and haunting. They evoke a desire for the rest of the narrative, and they powerfully convey the break-up of the storyline, the disjunction that is characteristic of modern life. In this manner they awaken in the viewer a desire for the whole, and thus elicit feelings of isolation and loss. The feelings of loneliness experienced by viewers of Hopper's art come from the fact that a continuum has been broken." (Ibid, p. 16)
Hobbs concludes that "Hopper's works depend on ellipses, on the missing parts of a narrative, and on the presence of a viewer who is assumed within the fictive realm of the painting and made a reality by the actual people who look at the work of artIn Hopper's work the assumed viewer is analogous to a camera on film: the unseen but essential modus operandi of the work of art. The camera analogy is important, for it enabled Hopper to be intimate and distant, to show glimpses of people's everyday lives without seeming to invade their privacy. His paintings, watercolors, and prints maneuver us so that our passive looking becomes a means for acting out the alienation of modern life. The observer then becomes an actor, the painting a script and the play a reading of the script by the actor/viewer" (Ibid, p. 20).
At the core of his art, is Hopper's ability to suggest hidden narratives. For example, in Hotel Lobby 1943 (Indianapolis Museum of Art), Hopper presents the viewer with three guests in a hotel reception area--a young woman sitting alone, reading a magazine, and an older couple waiting in a corner of the room. It is unclear who is waiting for whom, or whether the couple is leaving or arriving. The couple appears uneasy and stiff, whether they have had a disagreement or are quietly waiting is unknown. Adding to the discontinuity is the interaction or lack thereof between the woman and couple. While the identity of the people can only be imagined, Hopper charges the scene with apparent meaning that he leaves unresolved. Lloyd Goodrich attributes this ambiguity to Hopper's interest in conveying a broader truth. "Frequently," Goodrich writes, "the people spied upon are types rather than individuals, and thus the act of looking is made abstract; it becomes more a phenomenon of the modern world rather than an individual's voyeuristic fantasy." (Ibid, p. 20)
In compositional terms, one of the closest antecedents to Chair Car is the artist's painting, Compartment C, Car 293 1938 (IBM Corporation, Armonk, New York) which has several visual parallels. In this earlier work, a solitary woman is seated in a train compartment. Engrossed in a book, she appears to ignore the sunset visible through the window. She has isolated herself from others who may be in the compartment, and keeps her head down, the brim of her hat covering her eyes. Hopper again uses few colors--green, blue, yellow, and orange--in order to emphasize the simplicity of the scene. Hopper's use of bright yellows and oranges to depict a sunset creates a visual contrast with the drabness of the train compartment. It also seems to introduce the theme he would later explore further with Chair Car, the isolation of a traveler within a confined space juxtaposed with a rich natural light and the implication of hope and promise.
The pictorial power of light in Hopper's art is perhaps most famously presented in his Early Sunday Morning of 1930 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), in which he paints a row of identical storefronts on an empty New York street. Lloyd Goodrich notes of the work that, "the monotony and loneliness of the city have seldom been so intensely conveyed. Yet the final emotion is affirmative: clear morning sunlight, stillness, and a sense of solitude that is poignant yet serene." (Ibid, p.104)
Even when he incorporates people in his compositions, Hopper never paints the rushing crowds of the city. The men and women in his paintings are either alone or in small groups and are typically shown as stationary and without emotion. Often they appear in empty surroundings which are given equal importance, as in his celebrated masterwork, Nighthawks 1942 (The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois). In this painting the artist captures the isolation and solitude of the residents of a city, while also suggesting the possibility of a common bond among the late night characters in this unfolding drama.
Throughout his career, Hopper painted aspects of America that few other artists addressed. He portrayed unromantic visions of life in a broad and increasingly modern style. While Hopper's paintings have formal qualities in common with other Modernists, his art remained steadfastly realist. "Instead of subjectivity," writes Goodrich, "a new kind of objectivity; instead of abstraction, a purely representational art; instead of international influences, an art based on American life. He had been the first to picture the United States with a new Realism." (Ibid, p. 97)
"His art," wrote Goodrich, "was based on the ordinary aspects of the contemporary United States, in city, town, and country, seen with uncompromising truthfulness. No artist has painted a more revealing portrait of twentieth-century America. But he was not merely an objective realist. His art was charged with strong personal emotion, with a deep attachment to our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty."
(Ibid, p. 15)
His penultimate work, Chair Car summarizes the whole of Hopper's career, and presents in a single painting many of the major themes that he explored over a lifetime. With a taught, dreamlike atmosphere, Chair Car elicits emotions of solitude, loneliness, and apprehension. Painted at the very end of a career, it may also suggest the hopeful anticipation of reaching a destination.
Oil on canvas
The Collection of Helen and David B. Pall
Signed 'Edward Hopper' (lower left)
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1965 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, December 1965-January 1966.
Richmond, Virginia, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, American Painting 1966, May-June 1966.
São Paulo, Brazil, International Art Program, National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, IX Bienal de São Paolo, September 1967-January 1968, no. 40.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Collects, July -September 1968, no. 81.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art and elsewhere, Edward Hopper: The Art and The Artist, September 1980-January 1981, no. 113.
Brussels, Les Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts and elsewhere, Edward Hopper, February-May 1993.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, June-October 1995.
40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm.)
W. Francis, Ed., American Painting 1966, exh. cat., Richmond, Virginia, 1966, p. 5 (illustrated).
L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1966, pp. 154, 295 (illustrated).
W.C. Seitz, Ed., IX Bienal de São Paulo, exh. cat., São Paulo, Brazil, 1967.
T. Hoving, Ed., New York Collects, exh. cat., New York, 1968.
G. Levin, Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist, exh. cat., New York, 1980, p. 223, pl. 305 (illustrated).
Edward Hopper, Edward Hopper, The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1981, film.
P. Coessens, Ed., Edward Hopper, exh. cat., Brussels, 1992.
R.G. Renner, Edward Hopper: Transformation of the Real, Cologne, Germany, 1993, pp. 67, 72 (illustrated).
G. Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1995, vol. II, p. 378, no. O-365 (illustrated).
G. Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1995, pp. 567-8.
D. Lyons, A. Weinberg, Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, exh. cat., New York, 1995, pl. 55 (illustrated).
Frank K.M. Rehn, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1965.