Edward Hopper – New York Movie (1939)

“In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” This is the question that starts off Frank Capra’s 1937 movie, Lost Horizon. “Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia – Sometimes the Fountain of Youth – Sometimes merely that little chicken farm.”

Shangri-La, the idyllic, secluded valley, high in the mountains, where there is perpetual peace and people live on for hundreds of years in good health, is the fictional setting for Capra’s movie. But if there ever existed a physical place as enthralling and carefree as Shangri-La, then it must have been found in the alluring magic of the cinema. In 1930s America, going to the movies was a ritual in itself, a passage into another world, where one could leave all their worries behind and, for a couple of hours, take delight in the beauty and glamor of Hollywood.

One avid moviegoer at that time was Edward Hopper, a shy, introverted American artist, whose paintings are often seen as piercing depictions of the loneliness and alienation of modern life. His art was not only influenced by the theater, many praising his works for their cinematic qualities, but he, in turn, influenced generations of movie directors, among them the great Alfred Hitchcock. It’s sufficient to compare Hopper’s window paintings to Hitchcock’s The Rear Window to notice the eerie similarities and the shared voyeurism. They both transformed their audiences into Peeping Toms, able to partake in the most intimate details of other people’s lives, yet always from a distance.

Edward Hopper - New York Movie
Edward Hopper – New York Movie (1939), oil on canvas

It may come as no surprise then that in New York Movie Hopper combined his cinephilia with his art, inviting us into the interior of a movie theater. While the audience is looking at the screen, we get to see a blonde usherette leaning against the wall, absorbed in her own thoughts. This composition on the one hand reveals a communal experience and, on the other, amplifies the isolation of the usherette, who is neither watching the movie, nor part of the audience. She inhabits her own space, both mentally and physically.

That is not to say that the public is depicted as a crowd, either. Only a couple of figures are portrayed at all, dispersed in the theater like islands of solitude. There is, however, a common thread that binds them: the love of movies. We know from the journal of Hopper’s wife, Jo, that the screen shows “snowy mountain tops” and it’s been agreed upon that the movie still is taken, in fact, from Lost Horizon. I don’t necessarily believe that Hopper was sending us a coded message with this selection – he could have simply liked the movie. But some have noticed the parallelism between the escapist power of movies and the utopia of Shangri-La, both transporting the viewers outside their quotidian space into a fantasy realm, where life is easier and more enjoyable.

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It’s also worth noting how cohesive and tangible the movie theater interior looks. You would think this place truly existed, yet it was the result of Hopper studying various New York theaters, among them Strand, Globe, Republican and, most extensively, Palace Theater. As was often the case, the model for the woman was his wife, Jo. In total, Hopper completed fifty-four preparatory sketches for this painting.

Much has been said about the deep solitude and disconnection that the American portrayed, when the artist himself had always denied those interpretations of his work. He claimed that his paintings weren’t a social commentary, but snapshots of everyday life that passed him by. That may be very much true, yet I would say that the loneliness we’re witnessing isn’t the alienation within society. It’s Hopper’s experience of the world filtered through his own lens, however conscious or not he was of it, allowing us to share in – and often, identify with – his desolate vision.


33 thoughts on “Edward Hopper – New York Movie (1939)

  1. Hopper has such a rich and refreshing directness and simplicity. Curious that he also has a distinctly American vision, which is very positive in that it means he successfully evokes and era and place in his painting. Not easy to do. Some might say that this dates his work, but I rather think that sense of capturing a zeitgeist memorialized an era, which makes it timelessly valuable, rather than just dates it.

    I saw the Hitchcock influence right away when you pointed it out, but not so much the voyeurism as much as the camera angles, accentuation of shapes and forms, and importance of lighting and shadow. Hitchcock may have learned a lot about composition from Hopper as well.

    As for the woman, she might be bored, but her isolation I think is a good thing. It’s more of a luxury of internal reverie. I think this work also hearkens back to some of Degas’ paintings, as well as those of Mary Cassatt, and perhaps Latrec,

    It’s comforting to know he had to do so many sketches to hammer down the basic anatomy.

    Lastly, just an anecdote, but my New Genre professor, Paul McCarthy (yes THE Paul McCarthy) once derided Hopper as “Americana”, and that’s the only mentions of him I encountered in art school through the graduate level. I think he’s great, but, from a contemporary art standpoint, he’s somewhere between a non-entity and, well, consider his anatomy….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m rather surprised that artists like Hopper and Andrew Wyeth have been met with such disdain from the art world, when most people absolutely love their works. Maybe that’s the problem – they’re too popular. There are very few artists who are as quintessentially American. It’s one thing that the masses love him in the US, but he transcends his country, culture and era and appeals to people everywhere.

      New York Movie strikes me as one of his warmer paintings, with the red, orange and peachy hues. The shadows aren’t as menacing either, probably because the theater isn’t as dark as we’d expect. I mostly get a sense of comfort looking at this. Though, mind you, standing still on high heels for long stretches isn’t comfortable at all.

      You certainly had a very bad experience with your studies. Let’s just hope a countermovement will restore figurative art some dignity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I find all Hopper rather warm. They are moments of silence, perhaps lonely, but also calm and thoughtful.

        Contemporary art hates realistic painting, and believes it’s absolutely irrelevant since the urinal.

        Is there a counter-movement? I tend to see a lot of genre painting on IG getting all the hits. Lots of little girls with giant eyes, and anything with sex in it.

        I, for one, am not part of any movement. I think a lot of artists just do their own thing.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Uhm, I don’t think there’s an organized counter-movement as of now, I was mostly referring to a growing backlash. The public still prefers visual art to performance art and some contemporary artists have made names for themselves in figurative and abstract art. When you read about Banksy, you probably also found out about Jenny Saville becoming the most expensive living female artist.

          The only somewhat organized movement I was reading about recently that is trying to revive figurative art is called Kitsch. It’s similar to what Giorgio de Chirico wanted to do after WWI.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Didn’t know about Jenny Saville making that kind of money. Interesting.

            A figurative art movement calls itself “Kitsch”?! I gather that’s ironic.

            Meanwhile I discovered Banksy is a complete rip off of Bek le Rat. He just rebranded someone else’s style and content, made himself famous and made a mint off of it.

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  2. The sketches are a wonderful insight into this beautiful painting! I love when two worlds collide in a same visual and in this Hopper it’s even better: what is reality? what is fiction? where does the usherette really stand and yes, what about the viewer’s (and the painter’s) stance? Are our feet firmly on the ground or is it all figment of our imagination? Thank you for a wonderful moment of escape, Gabriela!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ingrid, your enthusiasm and appreciation are, as always, so infectious! I love seeing art through your eyes. You raise a very good point about the perspective that we’ve been offered. It’s like we’re sitting in the theater too and instead of watching the movie, we’re more drawn towards the usherette. Reality wins over fiction… except that we’re probably lost in our own fantasies, trying to imagine what the woman is thinking.

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  3. Hopper is my favorite modern artist. A year or so ago I bought a book with Hopper’s paintings and commentary. That’s the only art book for a single artist I’ve ever purchased and I bought it new at a museum. (Usually I buy art history/appreciation books at flea markets.) We had gone with another couple to the museum to see a special exhibit of Impressionist paintings. I finished early and waited for the others in the museum gift shop. I saw the book there amidst all the impressionist stuff they were selling and had to have it. I’ve loved his work ever since I saw my first work of his; the well know Nighthawks.

    The cinema background you give explains why I always thought his paintings had a photographer’s eye. He definitely works in color but has the ability to isolate his subject like a black & white photo does. I think that’s because his paintings are minimalist for lack of a better word; not in the sense of the genre. They are not filled with a lot of details therefore the subject is the center of attention.

    For some reason the way he composes his paintings remind me of a photograph but I haven’t been able to definitely put my finger on why they do. It may be the angle in some paintings but I just get the feeling he is often looking through a viewfinder instead of around or over and easel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exciting to hear! So I take it that Nighthawks is your favorite Hopper painting?

      I don’t know about the viewfinder. Many artists used that too, didn’t they? Maybe Hopper did it better. His compositions are truly stunning and he finds unlikely vantage points which really draw you in. You’re right, the austerity/simplicity in his art and the way he handles the shadows really emphasize the subjects. His color palette is (typically) rather limited too, and I think this brings Hopper’s art closer to B&W photography.


  4. You have no idea how excited and nervous I was to read this. Hopper has had such an influence on me and it turns out that I really wanted you to like his works, which is a silly thing, obviously. It is strange understanding that he has been and still is derided as too Americana, while me coming from a small town on the opposite side of the world can find comfort and sense in his works. Aside from the peculiar perspectives and his signature colour tones one other thing that makes the experience stronger for me is how a lot of his paintings feel so quiet, as if all the sources of sound, even slight bodily movements, have been carefully removed, this one being one of the exceptions. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jo, I hope I never make you nervous again! I have this self-imposed policy of only featuring artists and artworks that appeal, somehow, to me. Sometimes I might feel slightly neutral or even conflicted about a painting, but I don’t intend to promote art which I can’t appreciate myself.

      That said, I’m a big Hopper fan, precisely due to the silence quality that you mentioned, which is essential to all of his paintings. I often look for silence and quiet in art, since these are so difficult to come by in our daily lives. I think you might appreciate Vilhelm Hammershøi’s tranquil interior scenes too: https://artschaft.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/vilhelm-hammershoi-interior-with-young-woman-from-behind-1904/

      Thank you so much for such a lovely and heart-warming comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for recommending that post, Gabriela. I have a feeling that today is going to be about Vilhelm Hammershoi 🙂 And, thanks a lot for taking the time to write back. looking forward to your more of your posts

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You’re welcome, Jo! I’m so glad Hammershoi appealed to you. He’s more repetitive and predictable than Hopper, but there’s great comfort in that repetition, while an underlying mystery engulfs you.

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  5. I guess Nighthawks is still my favorite Hopper but this one you posted and Gas are very close seconds. I’m not saying that I think he looked through a viewfinder for his paintings but that they often look to me as though I’m viewing them through a viewfinder with a camera with a 45mm to slight telephoto lens. Most painters I think have more of a wide angle view of their subject. Some examples of his paintings that I think think give the viewer the impression of looking through a viewfinder are: New York Pavements, Rooms by the Sea, House on Pamet River, and Approaching a City. To me all of these, to one degree or another, have compositions and subject matter that make them look more like snapshots that paintings.

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    1. I see what you mean now! Yes, you do get the feeling of looking through a viewfinder. Of the examples you mentioned, Approaching a City, in particular, is very interestingly and claustrophobically cropped. The tunnel looks like a coffin or sepulchre and the buildings obtrude the sky, leaving no room for respite. You’re caught in concrete.

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  6. Hopper!!! I love Hopper. My favorite American painter. I’ve never seen anyone else who could create space like he could. It’s so easy to stare *into* his paintings and lose yourself for awhile. I love the sketches slideshow, too. You’re getting so sophisticated with your medium. I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m psyched to hear Americans are not yet tired of Hopper, given how over-saturated you guys must be with his imagery. Yes, nothing screams “sophistication” as much as a slideshow. There will be holograms popping out at you any day now. I wonder how VR will influence our experience of art and culture.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I assume Hopper intuited that when his work got analyzed, people were reading into his personality too. And given how introverted he was and how isolated he lived, he couldn’t have liked that.

      Liked by 1 person

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