Saturday, June 27, 2020

Hopper's Light: Evocative or Illogical?

Did you notice that something is missing in this picture? It's the cast shadow from the horizontal sash of the window. Also, the shaft of light is far wider than the window, and the rays of light aren't parallel.

Sun in an Empty Room, by Edward Hopper

Hopper also ignores the effect of the secondary source of soft blue skylight that would influence the base of the wall adjacent to the shadow, and he leaves off the baseboard moulding at the edge of the shadow.


John Walsh of Yale University gave a lecture on YouTube, which discusses Hopper's manipulations of light and geometry. The bottom image shows a digital reconstruction Wash commissioned to show the window shape necessary to achieve the light patch. To skip ahead, visit the video at about 12:00 and 47 minutes.

Are these faults or are they fair choices to make a more striking picture? I can see why Hopper didn't want to make the sun patch smaller or to cut it up with cast shadows. The painting is about emptiness and it's a big statement of light and shadow. There's not much else to look at here. 

Rooms by the Sea by Edward Hopper, collection Yale Art Gallery

There are a lot of things wrong here, too. He shows a slanting shape of light cut off on the left, as if it's limited by the top of the doorway. That's OK. But the bar of light across the floor has a similar angle. Something feels wrong about that.


Perhaps he remembered seeing the light effect and constructed it in a way that felt right to him geometrically. But it's completely impossible.


I set up a quick cardboard maquette to show the problem. That shadow across the floor shouldn't have an angle to it. It must be a straight line from the edge of the door to the base of the wall.

Do these criticisms seem trivial or pedantic? I hesitate to share them because I like Hopper's work.

But art should stand up to hard looking. Once I start noticing how illogical the light is (not to mention the perspective and the carpentry details), it's harder to appreciate the sentiment of the picture. It's like trying to walk with a pebble in your shoe. 

An artist has freedom to do anything he or she can get away with if the resulting painting communicates more effectively. But its probably best to make a statement that's consistent with truth.

20 comments:

arturoquimico said...

Usually "informed" opinion is worth hearing (in my opinion). As a scientist (50 year career) and an art hobbyist I am astounded at the number of opinions I have heard regarding the pandemic based solely on emotion. I think most of us artists look forward to your opinions, suggestions, and teachings because we know by whose authority you speak. Please continue...

nuum said...

Master Gurney,
If I were the owner of the world, I would compel you to post twice a day, instead of just once.
I think I read/watched each one of your posts at least twice.
Thanks.
Paulo - Rio.

Jake Stansel said...

If Hopper had intentions behind the distortion of light, and leaving out details in the shadows, then there's a level of surreality I could appreciate. Hopper loses details and accuracy like landscape painters scrub out details and information with atmospheric perspective. There's a weird peripheral sensation I get when looking at his paintings, like something's lacking focus even when looking directly at the thing, like missing wall trim.

We may vividly dream when we sleep, but can we say what we see in dreams has a reliable fidelity to real world physics? Does the light coming through a doorway in a dream cast accurate angles? Maybe everything looks right, subconsciously, but to some extent the visual realness of a dream or memory has to have gaps and errors in it.

Edward Hopper feels like an "unreliable narrator" in a story, except he's painting that narrative. That's my justification for loving Hopper's technical wonkiness.

Karen G said...

I'm all for getting the shadows and light patches right — something I struggle with. Thanks for the idea of a quick maquette to check out where they ought to be! Your analogy of having a pebble in your shoe is spot on.

CerverGirl said...

Perhaps Hopper's intention was this discussion? I agree the missing detail in the top painting conveys "empty" as titled...and I love the choices in the final painting with water outside compared to the sketch--the shapes of the background room furniture, no framed art on the wall, no door, though there are hinges. Very interesting. Thank you for doing the maquette!

Sandra Strait said...

I see these as abstracts, evoking real life without being bound by it. It poses a question to me - what is real, what is important? I think the answer lies with each individual viewer and tells you something about both Hopper and yourself. I find this quality in most of his works.

James Gurney said...

Jake, well said. I appreciate art that is one step removed from direct observation. In Hopper's case, I gather that he prepared his pictures using a set of compositional drawings, with a healthy helping of imagination and memory.

As many of you have suggested, he was able to capture that other worldly feeling in works such as his "Night Shadows" etching, which works on a poetic level.

Rabbytx said...

If we use Keat's negative capability (a leap beyond logick) than there is no problem at all with mistakes, because they don't lessen the quality of a great work of art; if you take a look at past masters and their works, like Titian's Nymph and Shepard,Munch's Sick Child, Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son, you will notice how there are mistakes in the named painting's, but the totality makes it great, not the small parts.

Krystal said...

I like Hopper's work as well but I think you are right to share your observations about it. It might be a choice, it might be an mistake as weel. Nobody is perfect and everyone is on a learning path, even great artist that one admires.

I like the direct observation because it is so useful to understand what we are seing...

Susan Sorger said...

I once say a painting with lots of cast shadows which had been painted by a Polish artist who had been trained academically. It was an interior scene and the light was clearly from the above right as several furnishings were casting shadows downward and to the left. Except one cuckoo clock on the wall which had a shadow falling down and to the right. It was JARRING. It was clear that the cuckoo clock had been copied from a photo and input into the scene and mister "classically trained" didn't really think it through.
YES it is important that the shadows in paintings fall realistically in paintings. What passes for some is Jarring to others. You can't draw the line at "only a little off". Off is off.

Drake Gomez said...

The faulty physics of Hopper's light doesn't bother me. Like Cézanne before him, his paintings make the viewer aware simultaneously of the three-dimensional illusion of the picture and the flatness of the picture plane. We might ask whether Cézanne's distortions are bothersome, too, but because his paintings are less "realistic" than Hopper's, the distortions probably jump out less. But by painting in a more naturalistic manner, Hopper has less wiggle-room to defy nature without getting caught. This is what makes what he is doing extremely difficult, and bound not to please everyone.

conwayde said...

Hopper made things up the way he wanted, like Nighthawks - the diner as pictured never existed, but was probably a composite of places that Hopper liked, such as the front of the Flatiron building. There was some blogger that looked into finding the original Nighthawks diner - the guy researched it pretty extensively - and came up with nothing. Millions of New Yorkers and not one can recall ever seeing it, nor is there a photograph existing of it. That's becasue it only existed in Hopper's mind.

Marina said...

Neither trivial, nor pedantic—but very interesting. I agree with Jake’s description of Hopper san unreliable narrator. There is surreality in those images. Abstraction, and poetry.

Jeff said...

Isn't this a little similar to Vermeer's distortions of light and shadow? I know there have been a lot of simulations of Vermeer's room, including building one in 'Tim's Vermeer'. Unless we actually think Hopper and Vermeer couldn't draw (or use a camera obscura) then I think they painted the effect they wanted. That's part of why these paintings are so great.

Sam Bleckley said...

Maybe what can be learned from this is that, while the intricacy of the outside world is an excellent inspiration, it's not *Hopper's* inspiration. He is not Hammershoi, fascinated by the way light and stillness affect the room he's actually in. He's solving a different problem.

Hopper, maybe, is more interested what it feels like to *be* empty and still, more than what it looks like for a room to be empty and still. The room is a stand-in for something internal, and so disobeys many rules of real-world rooms (which have furniture and curtains and no oceans and correct light and sensible geometry) in order to obey a psychological logic.

It's interesting to note that most of the "inaccuracies" you point out involve edges of light being parallel to a wall when it would actually be cast at an angle. Especially in Rooms By The Sea, where the inside-ness vs outside-ness is a really important source of tension, maybe adding additional parallel lines helps emphasize the unnatural, closed-in boxiness of the inside?

Which is not to say that he definitely, purposefully made the lighting inaccurate -- but that even if it were a mistake, if it successfully fulfilled his real goal, then why would he want or need to correct it?

(I think one of the hardest things we have to learn as painters is to stop painting when the *problem is solved*. There's little to be gained and lots to be lost if you detail every face in the crowd, if your real subject is the athlete they're watching.

Ingres made inaccurate bodies to accurately depict the grace he was interested in; did he add extra vertebrae on purpose, or unconsciously? Would the answer change your opinion of the painting?)

Garrett said...

I think Hopper's physical inaccuracies aren't a problem in the least.. Artists often subordinate technical accuracy for overall effect, even while staying true to illusionistic representation (Michelangelo's David is famously mis-proportioned to account for viewing from below for instance). And anyway Hopper is not necessarily painting faithful representations of the outside world; I think they are often subjective spaces, evocative of memories or subconscious physiological distortion. Imagined space... As viewers, we are not experiencing the scenes as an impartial "flies on the wall," but instead looking though the artist's eyes and mind... It's not the only way to see the work, but I think it might be a valid way to look at it...

A Colonel of Truth said...

For a guy who paints flying VW’s, James, your closing sentence is rather humorous. To point, most likely Hopper knew exactly what he was doing. And he’s amused.

Jim Williams said...

The illustrator vs the artist.

Mark Vander Vinne said...

I always viewed Hopper's work to be about design as much as it is about light. His willingness to manipulate the shadows for the design was probably a breakthrough at the time. It reminds me of how Wayne Thiebaud or Richard Diebenkorn would manipulate perspective for design. Hopper is just doing it with light. Sure, it might be inaccurate scientifically, but as an artist, a painting should be much more than that. And Hopper's are.

Mark Vander Vinne said...

I always viewed Hopper's work to be about design as much as it is about light. His willingness to manipulate the shadows for the design was probably a breakthrough at the time. It reminds me of how Wayne Thiebaud or Richard Diebenkorn would manipulate perspective for design. Hopper is just doing it with light. Sure, it might be inaccurate scientifically, but as an artist, a painting should be much more than that. And Hopper's are.