Automat by Edward Hopper

Automat by Edward Hopper (1927)

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong? “

I am sure the words from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby are known by most people.  Loneliness can be a terrible burden to have to bear and its often associated with the impersonality of a large city, which although teeming with people, they seem to remain as strangers, whereas within small village communities there is a sense of camaraderie and friendliness which ensures that with a minimum of effort your loneliness can be banished. 

 My Daily Art Display featured painting for today is entitled Automat by the American artist Edward Hopper, which he completed in 1927.  His theme of loneliness and the loneliness of city life was a constant theme in a number of his paintings.  Look back to My Daily Art Display of January 23rd when I featured his famous work entitled Nighthawks. 

In today’s painting we see a woman, with her cloche hat pulled low down over her forehead, staring into her coffee cup as she sits by herself, in what Hopper terms as an Automat.  I have to admit I had never heard of this term before  but I believe they were what we would now call fast food outlets,  which served simple food or drinks,  and which were served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines but I guess the machines have been removed an there is waitress service nowadays.   There is a starkness about the setting, almost but not quite minimalist.  Like the scene in Nighthawks there are just windows but no doors on view, giving a slight sense of entrapment.  Her look of preoccupation would suggest she may be, for some reason unknown to us, mentally entrapped.

The woman we see before us is pensive, her eyes are downcast and to my mind she seems a little sad.  She is well dressed with her warm winter coat with its fur collar and cuffs.  She wears makeup so maybe she is on her way for an evening out or looking how dark it is outside, maybe she is on her way back home.  Of course we are not really sure whether she is on her own or whether the empty chair at her table is for somebody else.  Maybe she is awaiting her companion or is her despondency due to the companion’s non-arrival.

Another strange thing about the woman is that she has only one glove on.  Could it be that this café is not only a lonely place but also a cold one and the one glove is all she wanted to remove so that she could hold the cup and yet still retain some warmth?  The dark window takes up a lot of space in the painting and its darkness adds to the atmosphere of the painting.  It is pitch-black outside and, along with the way the woman is dressed, gives us the feeling that this scene takes place on a cold autumn or winter night.  There is no sign of life outside, no people, no lights from other buildings and no headlights from cars.  This lack of outside lights works well and allows just the penetration of the blackness by the reflection of the café lights to be more effective and in so doing adds to the feeling of isolation. Does Hopper want to liken the woman’s mood and her life to this view of the window – dark with little going on in it?  She is in the middle of a deserted town which adds to the sense of her isolation and solitude.  Note how Hopper has painted the woman’s legs.  The brightness of his colouring of them draws our eyes to them even though they are under the table.  It adds a little bit of overt sensuality to the painting and makes us wonder how such a woman could feel sad and lonely.  We are now concerned about her vulnerability.  Is her pensiveness also due to her feeling vulnerable as she sits alone in this café?

Time Magazine, August 1995

Hopper’s painting and ones of a similar theme are linked with the perception of urban alienation, which by definition is the state of being withdrawn or isolated from the urban world, as through indifference or disaffection.  It is interesting to note that in August 1995 Time magazine used this painting on its front cover with its lead article dedicated to stress, anxiety and depression.

Loneliness is often the central subject matter in Hopper’s art. The people he depicts look as though they are far from the comfort and reassurance of home. We see clues as to their isolation in the way they stand reading a letter beside a hotel bed or drinking in a bar. They stare out of the window of a moving train or read a book in a hotel lobby. Their faces often have the look of vulnerability and introspection. They look like they may have just been jilted or have just broken up with someone. They often seem to be mentally searching for something or someone and have been cast adrift in transient settings. His paintings are often set at night, as this adds to the mood and evocatively all we see through the window is darkness.

Yet despite this bleakness we witness in Hopper’s paintings, they are not themselves bleak to look at – perhaps because they allow us, the viewer, to witness some of the artist’s grief and disappointments, and from that we feel less personally persecuted and beset by them.  It is as if we suddenly realise we are not the only person to feel sad or depressed, for isn’t it true that sometimes a sad book consoles us more when we feel sad.  Maybe we just need to realise we are not alone in our sufferings. 

In some ways Hopper has challenged us to make up our own mind about the story behind the painting.  There is no action going on to give us any clues.  Maybe the story we come up with will depend on our own state of mind.  If we are happy, we may well believe that the woman is thinking about the coming to the café of her beloved.  If we ourselves are feeling lonely and slightly depressed then maybe we empathize with the woman and share her isolation and vulnerability.  So what is to be?  What is your take on the scene in the painting?  Maybe it is at times like this, when we look at the painting and we perceive the loneliness and unhappiness of the woman that we should take time to be grateful for what we have.  Maybe we should not always desire something else.  Maybe we should want what we have.