_ B. Gerry Coulter

I. Introduction

All is not as it appears in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Perhaps he worked with a perception that we do not know the "real", merely the appearances behind which it hides. The more time I spend with his works the more I see them not as the product of a "realist" painter, but rather, of a person who deeply problematized the real. Given his lack of political commitments this can also be read as a kind of indifference toward a universe which is indifferent to human existence.

For Hopper painting was about recording light breaking over objects - people, streets, buildings and the land. He also mastered the painting of artifical light in his night scenes. His canvases portray an ambivalence which becomes palpable as we examine his work more closely. The question then arises: how do we put this feeling into words? Hopper left this task to us as he refused to penetrate beyond those appearances on our behalf. When we look for the ambivalence in he works he becomes on of the more interesting painters of the twentieth century. On the surface Hopper's paintings can easily be viewed as realist. But what if we do not look beyond this easy solution?

2. Hopper. Approaching A City (1946, oil on canvas)

This essay reflects upon several aspects of Hopper's painting: 1) The silent photographic quality which pervades his recording of appearances as light (natural and artifical), breaks over the surface of objects; 2) the "masks" his human subjects wear; and 3) his radical disenchanting of America which takes us to the surreal element which suffuses his work. Examining these aspects of Hopper's painting leads me to advance the idea that contrary to accepted opinion, Hopper was not a realist. For me he occupies the zone of appearances which is constantly modulating between the real and the surreal. Hopper's realism threatens at any moment to break into surrealism - yet, as soon as we begin to see his work as surreal, the appearances of the real he paints begin to pull us in the opposite direction. And why should they not? America was, in Hopper's time, as it is today, an almost surreal place. This is not the America of the American Dream - but the unreal quality of America recognized by Andre Breton when he said: "Hopper is one of the few American artists working outside surrealism who approaches its dreamlike quality" (in Barter, 2007:199).

II. A Photographic Quality

3. Hopper. Early Sunday Morning (1930, oil on canvas)

Perhaps one of the reasons why Hopper has been understood more as a realist is that the photographic quality of his work was recognized at an early date (Jewell, 1929:12). There has been a strong tendency to see photography as a realist medium in America and Hopper's association with it contributes to his status among realists. Hopper's paintings (especially his urban scenes), allow us to travel the world in silence in a manner similar to photography. Photography's stillness pervades Hopper's "freeze frame" images whether or not humans are present. Silence is among the most beloved qualities of photography and one Hopper takes as vital to painting.

"Photo-graphy" is the writing of light which entails skiagraphy (the recording of shadows). Few painters since the Baroque, outside of surrealism, have understood the importance of shadows to painting as did Hopper. His works are also translucent to the point of seeming to be not quite real. Among contemporary photographers we seldom see this translucence as strongly as in the images of Jean Baudrillard. Indeed, Baudrillard recognized this shared quality between his photography and Hopper's painting (Baudrillard, 1997:32-42). It is also useful to keep in mind the photography of Wem Wenders (which like Baudrillard's photography and hopper's painting) often captures the real in an almost surreal manner (see especially Wenders, 2006.

4. Baudrillard. Paris (1996, photograph)

Baudrillard agrees with Plato who said that the image lies at the point of intersection between the light emanating from our eye and that coming from the object. This idea acknowledges that a certain power is shared between the subject and the object as in Baudrillard's photographs. It is precisely this aspect of photography - understood as both an object and a subject based medium - which informs Hopper's paintings. Since Vermeer, few (Turner of course), have understood luminosity as well as Hopper. It is an understanding of light on an intuitive level - a photographic understanding in Hopper's case - which surrenders some of the image maker's power to the energy of the light breaking on the surface of objects. This respect for the object he is painting imbues Hopper's work with a strong character and allows shadows to more aggressively play their role in supplying mystery and a certain unease.

5. Hopper. The Lighthouse and Two Lights (1929, oil on canvas)

Image makers, be they photographers or painters, who are consumed by light breaking on objects are, in my view, the best recorders of appearances. Those who seek appearances are not interested in attempting to penetrate to some "real", which we can never know, but in surrendering to the seduction of appearances. As Hopper put it one time when curators were attempting to add complexities to his work with which he did not agree: "What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house" (in Davis, 2007:30).

It is the photographic qualities in Hopper's work which compel us to begin to register the destabilizing effect of his painting. The silent stillness of his works invite us linger over appearances which generate ambivalent feelings. If the paintings were simply products of a desire for verisimilitude it is unlikely they would operate in this manner. The feeling that something more than realism is the painter's ambition creeps over us in this process. If human figures are present, the mask-like faces he paints force more questions.

III. An Intimate Detachment - Hopper's Masks

6. Hopper. Sea-Watchers (detail, 1952) Oil on canvas

Hopper's human subjects are often posed as absent from their lives - their bodies are present but their thoughts are elsewhere. Even when alone, his sitters wear masks. The lack of narrative in his work leads some to feel unfulfilled but when we enquire into these blank faces we become more intrigued. Hopper here obliges us to write the narrative. What do his figures share in common? Whether posed with a book, a cigarette, a coffee, or the taking in the sun, the one thing each of his characters are doing is waiting. Even Office at Night (1940) [the secretary has gone to the filing cabinet where she has paused and is looking at the man at the desk who has drifted away while over his papers] the subject of the work modulates between absence and waiting. Hopper's human subjects are shown serving out their life-long death sentences. An easy kind of suffocating boredom infuses the America painted by Hopper. His paintings are a far cry from his country's emergent advertising culture - particularly the false face America shows to the world.

Some have read intimacy into Hopper's human subjects (Renner, 1990:65) and I think he attempted to tread a very fine line between intimacy and detachment. This is one of the contradictions present in his work. As in the simultaneous presence of the real and surreal in many of his works (see next section), the intimacy/detachment duality charges his paintings of people with a kind of tension that also takes us beyond simple realism.

His paintings of people show how Hopper worked against so much of the aesthetic and political thrust of modernity and its quest for an analytic truth. The challenge he embraced was to see through identity and intimacy to find the mask, the face of the secret otherness of each person. The face we wear is but an appearance and under it hides the real that others (and we ourselves) never really know. Hopper's paintings of people share an affinity with the work of Francis Bacon who represented the unknowable mystery of each person with an abstract element in his portraits. Bacon treads a fine line between abstraction and realism in his paintings of portraits (including himself). He told David Sylvester: "...there is a kind of sensational image within the very, you could say, structure of your being, which is not to do with a mental image - when that image, through accident, begins to form" (see Sylvester, 1980:160; see also Coulter, 2007). In Hopper's work the mask plays the role that the abstract element plays for Bacon.

Victoria Alexander notes that an important part of Odd Nerdrum's mastery involved how well he painted illusion (2007). I think this is also true of Hopper who, especially in his paintings of people, avoids the quest for truth that is the mission of painters seeking to portray a sitter's "real" identity. In this, Hopper much to our benefit, went against the advice of one of his more important teachers William Merritt Chase. Chase admonished his students: "Do not imagine that I would disregard the thing that lies beneath the mask". For Chase this thing was "soul" (Davis, 2007:37). Closer to our own time painters like Bacon or Hopper have taught us that the far more subtle game is to paint illusion and the mask as a way to avoid the trap of resemblance and the illusion of identity.

7. Hopper. Morning Sun (detail, 1952, oil on canvas)

Hopper's masks reside comfortably beside his photograph-like images in that they represent the seduction of the painter by appearances which becomes an important part of his overall radical disillusioning of the world. Whether or not people are present in his paintings there is a disenchantment of America in Hopper's work. He is among the best of artists who have a finely attenuated sense for the silent miseries which constitute the bulk of human suffering. Along with the photographic qualities of his work, Hopper's masks point us past a realist assessment of his work. This takes us toward an account of why he painted such a disenchanted vision of America.

IV. A Radical Disenchantment

8. Hopper. Automat (1927, oil on canvas)

Realist painters all too often offer us a banal depiction of the world drenched in verisimilitude. This fact alone could lead to the disqualification of Hopper as a realist. He also is willing to manipulate architecture in an other than realist manner. Nowhere is this achieved better than in Office at Night (1940). As our eye runs along the wall with the window and turns left along the wall where the shapely secretary is posed at a filing cabinet, we see that this is an implausible architecture. It has been arranged by Hopper to portray a silent snapshot, where a conversation is not taking place between the figures behind their respective masks. The light which breaks over them is from a source as artifical as the system which has brought this man and woman together as functionaries of some higher power. This work registers Hopper's disenchantment in the language he knew best - paint.

Hopper was a subtle innovator whose work moves further and further away from realism in the way it disenchants America more than we would expect from realism. In Automat (1927) like so many of his pictures [Sunday (1926); Compartment C, Car 193 (1938); Four-lane Highway (1956); Intermission (1963); the cover illustration for the Morse Dial Magazine (1919)], Hopper paints the individual alone in a moment of existential reckoning. These are not happy figures, nor are they outwardly angry. They are in one way or other experiencing American modernity and they do so with a certain indifference. Whether traveling on a train, sitting outside a bypassed gas-station, alone in front of a shop, or in an automat - Hopper paints individuals throughout his career who are not wasting time, but being wasted by it. There are also a number of paintings where more than one person is present but no conversation is taking place such as Chop Suey (1929), Room in New York (1932), Office at Night (1940), Summer Evening (1947), Sea Watchers (1952), Chair Car (1965), or Sunlight in The Cafeteria (1968).

9. Hopper. Magazine Cover (1919)

An important parallel to the photographic silence of his work is that in Hopper's understanding of modern America there appears to be little to say. Whether alone or with others, Hopper's figures typically reside in their own individual worlds and one gains the distinct impression form them that America has become place of great boredom.

Several writers on Hopper have understood him to be something of a voyeur, especially in his paintings of rooms and offices at night from the vantage point of a building across a street or an alley (see Spring, 1998:11 ff.). For me these pictures do not work as voyeuristic images. Perhaps these works reveal something of Hopper's own feelings for the city. He was a very private individual who recorded the way the city makes us transparent to each other. The city which can easily be seen as solid and communal is reduced to its underlying superficial transparency where we all watch our neighbors but often do not talk to them. This is one of the defining aspects of the transition from the traditional to the modern and Hopper records it at many instances.

Hopper's urban scenes are not realist images in the traditional sense neither are they entirely surreal. They are explorations of the masks people wear in public (and in private) and the conversations that almost (but ultimately do not), take place. Taken alongside of his non-figural works such as Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), Approaching A City (1956), Early Sunday Morning (1930), or Sunlight in an Empty Room (1963), Hopper's figural paintings contribute to an oeuvre that is one passing over the horizon of the real but not quite past the horizon of the surreal. What makes Hopper so interesting to us today, as in his own time, is the modulation which takes place between the real and the surreal. If there is such a thing as neo-surrealism then Hopper was a founding member of the school.

The experience of the urban for the American has long been associated with negative feelings ranging from an uneasy embrace to outright fear. Hopper's paintings often make doubt and anxiety their central theme and this lends a very familiar yet unsettling quality to them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries [Hopper was born in 1882], the more America urbanized the more prominent isolationism became in its foreign policy. Hopper is the painter of this uncomfortable side of America and he does so, as Andre Breton reckoned, by approaching his country's dream-like aspects (see Barter, 2007:199). For me, the realism some perceive in Hopper's work, often takes on a unmistakably surreality and this is the best of its illusory qualities. Hopper seems to possess an understanding that something is deeply wrong in America but as a painter of appearances he can only suggest, without specificity, what that something may be. If Hopper paints a scene other than the real perhaps it is fitting in that America typically wants nothing to do with analytic truths about itself.

10. Hopper. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928)

The surreal can be painted as powerful and obvious or it can be represented in more subtle ways. Hopper prefers the latter approach (a kind of suggestion) and paints canvases over which discomfort seeps gradually. They slowly generate a feeling that something is not quite right - that all is not as it at first appears. Take for example Bridge in Paris (1906), Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928), Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), or Approaching a City (1946). In these paintings the oblique angles, deep shadows, and baroque lighting cast the kind of strange moroseness over his canvases we find in Giorgio di Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1912). The mask-like faces Hopper paints call upon us to enquire as to what may be wrong with this particular woman frozen before a window, or sitting on a bed, or the man who has drifted far away from his desk, or the couple in a trance-like state before the sea. These are not full blown surrealist paintings yet neither are they simple realist works. Later in his career Hopper painted more dream-like and obviously surreal images such as Rooms by the Sea (1951), which shows the sea coming to the very doorstep of a room; and South Carolina Morning (1955) which does the same with a vast expanse of grassland. Both of these paintings challenge the familiar with the oceans of uncertainty which begin at our feet and stretch out across a vast horizon.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote: "We accept the real and its self evidence so easily only because we sense that reality does not exist" (Baudrillard, 2004:33). I wonder how often such thoughts coursed their way through Hopper's mind during the many hours he spent before each of his canvases.

11. Hopper. Office at Night (1940, oil on canvas)

V. Conclusion

In the paintings of Edward Hopper all is not as it appears. Perhaps the best way to characterize his work is to say that it shows a sustained interest in the subconscious and it does so in a very subtle manner which we can say is almost, but not quite, surreal: "So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious, that it seems to me most all of the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect" (Hopper cited in Barter, 2007:199).

12. Hopper. Rooms by the Sea (1951, oil on canvas)

Hopper never shows us the "real" because the real is something we can never know. His work is another reminder that the real remains hidden beneath appearances. Edward Hopper was not a realist but he was however a master of appearances. This is an interesting point of intersection between his art and the writing of Baudrillard. Perhaps a time will come when writing about Hopper will more widely understand him as something more than a realist painter. At present most people's suspicions remain at the emotional level. What is lacking now are the monographs and exhibitions which provide a sustained voice to this feeling. The arrival of such a perspective may be dependent upon the advent of a time when we are prepared to probe more deeply the incredibly subtle surreality of America. Hopper certainly gave us many glimpses of it to think about and that thinking may yet generate a wider discussion.

Dr. Gerry Coulter essay "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming" appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) - also available on-line at: His recent Article: "A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds", appears in Subaltern Studies:; An essay "A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today" appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008):; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: "Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction" (Spring 2008) is available at: Dr. Coulter's teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop's University's highest award for teaching - the William and Nancy Turner Prize. He is grateful to Dr. Mary Ellen Donnan (Bishop's University) for her insights while writing this paper.


Victoria Z. Alexander. "Evil Breathes Deeply Here: Odd Nerdrum and Baudrillard's Challenge to Art" in Big, Red and Shiny: An Art Journal. Number 68, September 12, 2007:

Judith Barter (2007). "Nighthawks: Transcending Reality" in Carol Troyen et. al., Edward Hopper. Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and New York: Distributed Art Publishers.

Jean Baudrillard (1997). "The Ecstasy of Photography: Jean Baudrillard interviewed by Nicholas Zurbrugg", in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Editor), Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London, SAGE, 1997.

Jean Baudrillard (2004). Fragments: Conversations with François L'Yvonnet. New York: Routledge.

Gerry Coulter (2007). "Overcoming the Epistemological Break: Francis Bacon and Jean Baudrillard and the Intersections of Art and Theory" Euro Art Magazine, Number 5, (Winter, 2007):

Elliot Bostwick Davis (2007). "Hopper's Foundation" in Carol Troyen et. al., Edward Hopper. MFA Boston and Distributed Art Publishers.

Edward Alden Jewell. "International and Other Exhibitions", New York Times, January 20, 1929: Section 8, page 12.

Rolf Günter Renner (1990). Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Transformation of the Real. Köln, Germany: Taschen.

Justin Spring (1998). The Essential Edward Hopper. New York: Abrams.

David Sylvester: Interviews With Francis Bacon (1962-1979). London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

Carol Troyen et. al., (2007). Edward Hopper. Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and New York: Distributed Art Publishers).

Wim Wenders (2006). Pictures From the Surface of the Earth. Munich: Shirmer/Mosel.

B. Gerry Coulter
He is Full Professor of Theory, Art and Cinema in the Department of Sociology at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. He is the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies ( ). His recent writings include: "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming" appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) - also available on-line at:

His recent Article: "A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds", appears in Subaltern Studies:; An essay "A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today" appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008):; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: "Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction" (Spring 2008) is available at: A recent paper: "Baudrillard and Hölderlin and the Poetic Resolution of the World" appeared in Volume 5, Number 4 of Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship in December, 2008:145-64:

Another recent paper: "In The Shadow of Post-Democratic Capitalism - A Fascination for China" appeared in Avinus - European Magazine for Media, Culture and Politics (November 21, 2008): . Dr. Coulter's teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop's University's highest award for teaching - the William and Nancy Turner Prize.