Painting of the Day

15 Dec



Office at Night. by Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Oil on canvas, 1940. Currently on view at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Notes from

Throughout his career, Hopper was fascinated by dramatic lighting and nowhere is this more evident than in his nighttime pictures, where brightly lit interiors contrast with the darkness outside. Glowing fluorescent or electrical lights, which illuminate windows and spill onto otherwise darkened street, set the tone for many of Hopper’s paintings and imbue the works with an air of mystery. The voyeuristic possibilities inherent in the modern city, where people lived in close proximity but often with anonymity—are especially apparent at night. Hopper frequently depicted stolen glances from fast-moving elevated trains and glimpses from windows into neighboring buildings, where figures are busy with their own private concerns, unaware or unconcerned that they are being watched.

Notes from

The painting depicts an office, occupied by an attractive young woman in a short-sleeved blue dress, who is standing at an open file cabinet, and a slightly older man who is perhaps in early middle age. He is dressed in a three-piece suit and is seated behind a desk. The nature of the office is unclear—it could just as easily be the office of a lawyer, an accountant, or of a small business.

Several clues provide context: The high angle from which the viewer looks down on the office implies that the viewer may be looking in from a passing elevated train—indeed, Hopper later informed Norman A. Geske, the curator of the Walker Art Center, which acquired the painting in 1948, that the idea for the painting was “probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York City after dark glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.” So this is not a prestige office—a fact that is reinforced by the awkward lozenge shape of the room, and by the small size of the man’s desk. A yet smaller desk, holding a typewriter, may belong to the woman. This implies that she may be his secretary.

Still, this is a corner office, which indicates that within their small organization, this is the most prestigious available space and therefore that the man is, perhaps, the manager or boss.

As in many of his other paintings, Hopper shows movement by means of a wind-blown curtain. In this painting, the ring at the bottom of the drawstring on the blind is swinging outward after the blind has been blown in by a gust of wind—possibly in response to a cross-breeze caused by the passing train.

The gust explains two other things. First, there is a sheet of paper on the floor beside the desk, which must have just blown there from the desk, as it has caught the woman’s eye. Second, the wind has blown the dress tightly around her legs, revealing her voluptuous figure to the strangers on the train—but not to the man, who stares intently at another document.

There is a sexual interpretation of the relationship between the two individuals. Here, as in a number of Hopper’s works, such as Evening Wind (1921) and Summertime (1943), the stirring of curtains or blinds seems to symbolize emotional or physical stirrings. (By contrast, listless curtains in other Hopper paintings like Eleven A.M. (1926) and Hotel by a Railroad (1952) seem to imply emotional stagnation or an inability to connect.)

Early proposed titles for the painting included Room 1005 and Confidentially Yours, reinforcing the idea that there is a deeper connection between the man and the woman, or that they are working jointly on a matter that involves a high degree of trust between them. In the end, Hopper settled for the more ambiguous title, Office at Night.

As in other nighttime scenes, Hopper had to realistically recreate the complexity of a room lit by multiple, overlapping sources of varying brightness. In this painting as in Nighthawks, his mastery of this problem is a key to his success. In Office at Night, the light comes from three sources: an overhead light, the lamp on the man’s desk, which sheds a small puddle of intense light, and from a street-light shining in the open window on the right-hand side. Hopper reported that the overlap of the light from the ceiling fixture and the light from the exterior created particular technical difficulties, since they required him to use different shades of white to convey the idea of degrees of shadow. A careful examination of the corner behind the woman reveals the faint shadow that she casts in the weak light of the ceiling fixture, almost lost by the sharply-etched shadow of the filing cabinet in the brighter light of the street lamp. 

My comments:

I would love to see this painting in real life and see if it becomes even more unsettling and disturbing than it already is reproduced on a computer screen. Edward Hopper certainly depicts a very different side of New York from that of the city’s typical connotations: usually New York is presented as a bustling metropolis full of people constantly, a city that never sleeps. 

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara December 16, 2012 at 2:16 am #

    i dont think hte wind blew her dress tightly aroudn her body, i think it was too small to begin with. reading the description of painting brings so much more detail than i would have thought of in looking at this painting. dont like it so i wouldn’t spend that much time thinking about it.

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