We are not living in an Edward Hopper world

Picking up today’s Arts and Style section of the Sunday Washington Post, I read an article by Sebastian Smee entitled “These Scenes Remind Us the Good Times Will Return,” in which he states that “over the past few weeks, I’ve heard people repeatedly declare that they feel like figures in an Edward Hopper painting.” The notion that we are now playing a part in the scenes of this artist was also the subject of a March piece by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian with the headline “‘We are all Edward Hopper paintings now’: is he the artist of the coronavirus age?” Those who know of my love of Edward Hopper’s portrayals have also repeated the same theme to me since we have been reduced to staying at home and social distancing.

The only problem is that I’m not in agreement with this line of reasoning.

I first became aware of Edward Hopper over twenty-five years ago when my family first began our annual summer vacations to Cape Cod. In order to be able to reach our rental home on the Cape early in the day on a Saturday we would drive from Reston, Virginia to Boston on the previous Thursday and spend a couple of days exploring the city. One of our first stops would always include exploring the Museum of Fine Arts.

On one such occasion, when my wife and two young girls were following the map to the Impressionist wing, we passed Edward Hopper’s “Drug Store.”

I studied the piece of art not knowing anything about the man whose signature appeared on the bottom corner. This began for me an interest in this painter that has led me to see other examples of his craft across the United States and Europe.

My feelings about the subjects of Edward Hopper paintings do not fit in the alienation camp of thought. I have never believed that he was trying to depict isolation or loneliness. In fact, I think he was after something much more important.

To me, Mr. Hopper was trying to initiate a state of mind described by the writer Robert Pirsig in his most well-known book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I was assigned to read this work by an English professor when I was a college freshman at the George Washington University.

In Zen, Mr. Persig goes on a physical and theoretical journey trying to understand the definition of the term quality. He actually develops a mental illness during this period in which he is involuntarily committed to a mental hospital and receives electroshock therapy. But he does solve his riddle.

Mr. Persig maintained that true quality was the summation of two parts. He characterized these components as romantic quality and the classic quality. An example will assist in understanding his point. A house can have aesthetics that greatly appeal to the eye, which exemplifies romantic quality, but can be made with inferior materials, which represent the classic quality. Mr. Persig would argue that the house did not have true quality because the classic quality ingredient was missing. Mr. Persig’s comprehension of quality can be applied to almost anything around us.

Essential to the author’s understanding of quality was an ability to perceive the romantic and classic elements that need to be included in the design of a quality product. He believed that the only way to grasp the recipe for quality was to first develop a peace of mind. Here’s the key paragraph from Zen on this subject:

“The reason for this is that peace of mind is a prerequisite for a perception of that Quality which is beyond romantic Quality and classic Quality and which unites the two, and which must accompany the work as it proceeds. The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that the goodness can shine through” (Pirsig 288). 

This is where Edward Hopper comes in. But to understand how, we need to take a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. This museum possesses perhaps the artist’s most famous painting: “Nighthawks.”

I have worked in the field of radiology administration for over 30 years. Each fall there is a major radiology convention in Chicago right after Thanksgiving, and when I attend I always make it a point to go to the Art Institute. In the room adjacent to where Nighthawks is displayed there is a bench. I love to sit on this bench and watch the reaction to Nighthawks as people pass by. Almost uniformly visitors take a quick look and begin to walk away. They then almost immediately turn around as their attention is pulled back to the canvas. Individuals will focus on the picture trying to understand the scene. Their mental process will take them to thinking about the characters before them. “Why are these people there when it appears to be in the middle of the night?”, they may ask themselves. Or they may wonder about the relationship between the man and woman who are sitting together.

Viewers then naturally begin to reflect upon their own lives. In other words, they are beginning the act of contemplation that is the first step to achieving a peace of mind.

It is this peace of mind that can lead to an idea to build a new company or service. Skyscrapers and life saving inventions originate when there are opportunities to consider what is possible in the future. Nonprofits that benefit the less fortunate spring from the kindness and creativity of mankind.

There are certainly artists that have painted with more skill than Edward Hopper. Others create much more beautiful pieces of art. But the manner in which Mr. Hopper utilized color, light, and shadows, together with illustrations that leave us emotionally slightly uneasy, combine to drive us to try to understand the nature of the world and our place in it.

The powerful significance of Mr. Hopper’s work is that it helps us develop a peace of mind while exploring the philosophical area of metaphysics. Ideas to consider while we cannot leave the house.

Mark Lerner is a member of the board of trustees of the Edward Hopper Museum and Study Center in Nyack, N.Y.