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Automat- Edward Hopper

The isolation of the urban individual


Artist: Edward Hopper

I have always enjoyed good realists.

It’s easier for me to understand their work and relate to their stories than the cubists or abstractionists. (I often struggle with abstractionism).

When it comes to realism though, I find Edward Hopper’s work infinitely interesting. To start with, he was American in a refreshingly different mould than traditional European artists in style and verve. (This itself is contrasting because Europeans have had such a monopoly on the stylistic oeuvre of art) In his seminal pieces of work, he deliberately captured the American way of life (which is very different from the aesthetics of European culture or style of painting) and to add to it; his work often conveyed a sense of melancholy or isolation.

The core of isolation in a thriving city is a theme that I can relate to, since it is so relevant to our everyday lives. It’s like looking into a mirror.

The Automat is no different.

To start with, however, let’s take a moment to understand what an automat is and where it fits within the American cultural context. Predecessors to coin-operated vending machines, automats were a wall of coin-operated cubbies that contained hot food and beverages behind a glass window. Thanks to a waiter-less service, they provided quick and delicious meals to thousands of diners every day at low prices. By the time Hopper painted his picture, automats had begun to be promoted as safe and proper places for the working woman to dine alone. To a New Yorker in the 1920s, Hopper’s “Automat” would have been hugely relatable.

Hopper displayed Automat for the first time on Valentine’s Day 1927 at his second solo show at the Rehn Galleries in New York. The painting portrays a lone woman lost in her thoughts, staring into a cup of coffee inside an automat at night. Striking is the isolation in the scene accentuated by the darkness of the night through the windows behind.

Like chords that capture melancholy through the bars of a rhyme, the scene is vibrant in its starkness of isolation and contradictorily neutral in its acceptance of everyday existence. A woman, fashionably dressed, taking refuge in the respite offered by a local diner to escape the abundance of human interactions in a bustling metropolis— for a moment alone.

A moment to reflect, to ponder and to be self-absorbed in the machinations of her mind.

What she is thinking can be anyone’s guess, but what you cannot escape is the realisation that sometimes you have been this person — slowing down during a busy day to create a sense of balance around the frenetic pace that surrounds you.

It’s a picture of solitude, but this solitude is not one of sadness. There is a veneer of acceptance and a deliberate slowing down of pace. A scene froze in a moment in time through silence, solitude and an intentional lack of action. A brilliant depiction of the isolation that grips our soul as we come to terms with the vagaries of urban living, weary disappointments and everyday hustle. Of course, all art is subject to its interpretation, and many critics have analysed the woman’s countenance as a private moment of despairing in solitude. Still, I never felt despair while looking at this painting. To me, it always had a slightly weary sense of acceptance tinged with ambiguity, rooted in the realism and economic independence we all ultimately adjust to.

Now for some interesting trivia. Hopper used his wife Jo as the model for this painting, but he made her younger and adjusted her sartorial look to capture the on-the-move working woman of New York in the 20s. Like most of Hopper’s work, a lot is left to imagination regarding the woman’s social circumstance and mood. What does stand out is her independence in solitude. Her fashionable dress and hat combined with makeup dictate that personal appearances matter to her and that she has a deliberate sense of style. Her loneliness depicts she is perfectly fine, choosing to have coffee alone on a cold wintry night(notice only one glove removed to hold the cup along with the fur on her wrap) in an otherwise empty diner. It’s not that she is in a rush either. The empty plate on the table signifies she probably had something else to eat and has been sitting there for a while.No one knows where this lady is going to or where she came from. Everything is captured in that ultimate personification of one single moment.

It’s like a study of contrasts in urban alienation.

Technically speaking, the creative use of oil in white on the floor, the window ledge, the table, her wrap and her skin gives the entire sequence a reflective glow that helps recreate the feeling of isolation in stark focus. Clean straight geometric lines capture both modernity and austerity of the diner in contrasting exposes: big flat dark shadows and abundant use of black complete the sense of emptiness. I say emptiness because the entire window is a monotonic slab of black as if there were no life on the streets outside. And true to the theme of the painting, there isn’t. Our subject is ensconced in her reverie, and life outside has little consequence for her at this moment.

Incredibly similar to how we react to moments like these in our everyday lives.

The beauty of art is that it can recreate realism in thought, by altering realism in imagery and yet communicate a central idea that brings a painting to life. Great painters excel in this. Hopper’s Automat is among the finest examples of modern realism that captures social life in The America’s in the 20s and 30s while also staying true to his fascination with urban alienation as a core theme that came to be his signature style.

About me:

I write to learn. More about me

Künstler in German means “ artist”. I am learning German, so it seemed apt for this publication. Here I draft my thoughts on paintings, artwork and incidents of the artworld, that interest me.



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Work @ Google. Ex Adobe, SAP, LinkedIn, IBM — Musings on growth, art, investing, life and a few other interests