Painting of the Day-Hopper’s “Sunday”

9 Jan

hopper sunday

Edward Hopper. Sunday, 1926. Oil on Canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Notes (from Phillips Collection website):

Sunday is characteristic of Hopper’s vision of twentieth-century America. At first commonplace, his art has unexpected resonance, showing the significant rather than the beautiful. The interplay between particular and generalized components, an ongoing aspect of Hopper’s work, contributes to the work’s vitality, making it at once familiar and unfamiliar.

Hopper’s art conveys the realities of the human condition genuinely and truthfully. Images such as Sunday provided visual form to prevailing states of mind—often of unfulfilled longing or nostalgia—in the United States. Hopper’s most influential teacher, Robert Henri, had already explored subjects inspired by contemporary experience, but Hopper’s work is sharper and tougher than Henri’s. Finding most American Scene art sentimental and obvious, Hopper disliked being identified as a proponent of the movement. By the 1920s, however, his art dealt exclusively with American subjects.

During 1926, the same time in which Sunday was executed, America was experiencing the early effects of the Great Depression. This work illustrates the national anxiety and disillusionment of the later part of the decade. Hopper’s characteristic style reveals the essential isolation of the individual, the troubled relationships and tensions within the environment.

Sunday depicts a spare street scene. In the foreground, a solitary, middle-aged man sits on a sunlit curb, smoking a cigar. Behind him is a row of old wooden buildings, their darkened and shaded windows suggesting stores, perhaps closed for the weekend or permanently. Oblivious to the viewer’s gaze, the man seems remote and passive. His relationship to the nearby buildings is uncertain. Who is he? Is he waiting for the stores to open? When will that occur? Sunlight plays across the forms, but curiously, it lacks warmth. Devoid of energy and drama, Sunday is ambiguous in its story but potent in its impression of inertia and desolation.

Duncan Phillips was the first to point to contrasting content in the work: “The grim scene is just as we remember it, only more so. The light conveys the emotion which is a blend of pleasure and depression—pleasure in the way the notes of yellow, blue-green, gray-violet and tobacco-brown take on a rich intensity in the clear air—and depression induced by this same light and these same colors as we sense them through the boredom of the solitary sitter on the curb…. Hopper defies our preconceptions of the picturesque and unflinchingly accepts the challenge of American subjects which seem almost too far beyond the scope even of the realistic artist’s alchemy.”

My comments:

Hopper has been a recent favorite artist of mine since the exhibition I saw at the Whitney in the summer of 2013. He has such a unique, sharp and defined way of painting (as mentioned in the notes) upon which he only improves in the later years of his artwork. To me, his work shines where his teacher, Robert Henri’s, faltered: its clarity, and its depth which goes beyond simply depicting what he saw in urban America.

This is what makes his paintings so captivating to me. He manages to not only capture the visual tableau of the era in which he painted, but the psychological underpinnings of that era as well. He also masterfully captures the idea of a calm before the storm that would represent this time in 1926, where there were tremors in the economic market that were not enough to cause outward panic, but yet probably gave many Americans that sick feeling of impending doom in the pit of their stomachs. In Sunday, Hopper captures this idea of a calm surface with troubles brewing underneath it by using a mild, bright lighting to the painting as well as a title that suggests it is Sunday, the Sabbath day of rest and leisure for many people. Sundays, at least among the bourgeoisie of then and today, are our lazy days, where some go to church and experience spiritual cleansing, then enjoy the rest of the day with simple pleasures such as brunch, socializing, and frolicking. The brightness of the painting suggests it is a bright, sunny day, completing the image of a gorgeous, relaxing Sunday. The darkness of the storefront isn’t menacing because we know it should be closed because it’s Sunday, and thus the shadows created by the awning above the storefront appear as a cool shadow, separated from the sunniness of Sunday just as business is separate from pleasure.

But then Hopper communicates the sense of uneasiness and anxiety by the composition and figures he uses. There is a lone man sitting on the sidewalk’s curb, with no one else walking the streets around him. The scene feels eerily empty, and we feel the man’s aloneness which feels disquieting. What is he doing there? Why isn’t this man with his family, and why is the street deserted? The lack of answers as to what the man is doing, and the lack of other people, gives the scene an unnerving mystery. His action in the painting is strange and inexplicable, just like the economic climate of 1926. And thus Hopper has taken a simple urban scene and imbued it with psychological and cultural meaning.

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