I Look At This Painting Everyday

May 23, 2022 4:05 pm. Published by

Pennsylvania coal town (1947) by Edward Hopper

For a few years now, I’ve had a postcard of this painting tacked to my study wall. It’s called Pennsylvania coal town and it was made by Edward Hopper in 1947.

Whenever I stop my work and look up at this painting, I can’t help but feel that Hopper painted something I recognise. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I recognise it anyway. He got it right, which is a very vague way of saying that he found something which is essentially true about being alive.

Whatever this truth is, it has nothing especially to do with coal mining in Pennsylvania, not for me at least. I’ve never been to Pennsylvania; that’s not the world I live in. But it does have something to do with a man raking his front lawn and the sun beginning to set, and with the way he pauses for a second, looking out to the distance. It is a truth captured in the particular spacing between the two houses, whose fronts are in shadow and whose sides are bathed in the yellow light of the late afternoon.

It is an instant of human behaviour we can probably all identify with. The man has stopped midway through a mundane task, gazing off beyond the canvas — and in a sense, beyond his own life.

Pennsylvania coal town (1947) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH, US. Source Wiki Art

I wonder who has not paused like this once in a while and apprehended something about their circumstances that words cannot quite articulate? A moment of perception, perhaps of sorry too, when a fresh thought ignites and the soft flame of understanding illuminates a new perception.

Is the painting about looking back or looking forward? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s about facing up to a difficult choice, one that has to be made some day soon.

The painting also acts as a metaphor for solipsism: how the external world and other minds are to some degree a mystery to us all. What this man is looking at is known to him alone. We share the same world as him — in Hopper’s vision, a world of subways, apartment buildings and late-night diners — yet for a moment, this man is in that state of isolation that we all must suspect, from time to time, is the real nature of our existence.

How can a painting do that? How can it get to that place? In the case of Hopper, much of his feeling comes through his choice of atmospheric effects: so many of his images take place at dawn or dusk. For Hopper, the long shadows cast by low sunlight is a metaphor for constant change and the loss that accompanies it.

At the very crux of this painting is an absence: the light fading, the man pausing, the quietude of the late afternoon. This is the wonder of an artwork like this. It operates in a silence that penetrates as if it were a hundred decibels loud.

Art has a peculiar way of capturing these rare universal truths. The expression is not one of platitudes or clichés (although art is not exempt from such things) but of describing an experience that others can relate to. Art reminds us that we are all — in these minds and bodies — inside the same perplexing and amazing predicament.

Not long ago, I pinned another postcard of an Edward Hopper painting on my study wall. This one is called Sunlight on Brownstones, and I’ve positioned it on my wall so it sits directly opposite the Pennsylvania coal town painting.

Now the two paintings face one another. To my mind, it’s as if the figures in each painting are staring across the void towards the other. In this way, the arrangement seems to fill in the absence that each work contains. And so the question “What are they looking at?” is answered in the same breathe. In art, we are always looking at each other.

Top: Sunlight on Brownstones (1956) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KS, US. Source Wiki Art. Bottom: Pennsylvania coal town (1947) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH, US. Source Wiki Art

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This post was written by Christopher P Jones