Automat Painting by Hopper: Seeking to be Lonely for Some Time

The automat painting by Edward Hopper

Paintings usually try to capture a dynamic scene, something that happens very fast and is seen for only a moment. This is what makes the painting so grand and incredible. But the American painter Edward Hopper’s subjects for his paintings were quite the contrary. Instead of dynamism, he chose stillness and multiplied the effect of that stillness. The Automat painting is a great example of how well it worked. 

Edward Hopper was known to capture the quiet, still moments and scenes of bustling cities. The composition of his paintings, both of color and geometry, amplified the sense of being alone in a crowd. The Automat captures a moment in time, conveying this feeling, the sense of loneliness, and the retrospection it gives to the lonely one. 

This article will try and analyze the painting, trying to find the meaning behind the lonely woman sitting all alone in a restaurant. But before we dive into the abstract, here’s some general information about the Automat that should work as the context for the analysis.

About The Automat painting

The Automat was completed in the year 1927, two years before the Great Depression hit the States and the world. So the painting depicts a scene during the “Roaring Twenties” when the economy was growing fast. This also indicates an inclination of the people towards work and nothing else. 

The painting was exhibited on Valentine’s Day in 1927 in Hopper’s second exhibition. The medium of the painting is oil on canvas and is 28 inches by 36 inches (71.4 cm by 91.4 cm) in dimensions. So this is a large painting, meant to be looked at like a window. 

The Automat was sold for $1,200 in 1927 which would be almost $32,000 US. It is currently displayed in Des Moines Art Center, Iowa. That’s all the general information about the painting. Now let’s move to the analysis. 

Analyzing The Automat 

Before we start with the painting, it is important to give a brief description of automats. Automats were fast-food restaurants that started popping up everywhere in the US in the 20s and 30s. These restaurants did not have any waiters or waitresses, but just vending machines. This enabled these restaurants to serve thousands of patrons daily. 

The Automat features a woman sitting alone, drinking coffee, and is lost in thoughts. The place where the woman is sitting and everything that lies in the perspective serves a purpose for the meaning of this painting. Let’s start with the woman:

Hopper used his wife Jo as the model for the woman in the painting but tweaked her face and features to make the woman look younger. The viewers (as Hopper has made us sit opposite to this woman) notice the lost yet pensive look on her face. She is holding the coffee, and yet looking down, frozen in some inward thoughts. As the human subject, she is the first to convey the message of the painting: loneliness. 

The second element of the painting that we notice is the environment. The fluorescent tinge in the colors (very Hopperesque) creates a very clean yet “dead” appeal to the place. There are some unused chairs on the right side, placing the woman in a lonely location, physically. But what creates this dramatic effect of loneliness is the large, dark pane of glass which is a void of emptiness.

The automat painting by Edward Hopper
The Woman Sits Alone. Automat by Edward Hopper. Used under the Fair use license

Why this painting feels lonely

With the darkness outside the restaurant and not a single source of light or life from the outside, the woman and we (the viewers) are placed amidst a void. It is like the restaurant is a ship, carrying us into a dark void. The lights you see on top are the reflections of the indoor lights of the cafe. And since these lights keep going in the distance, it creates an effect of the large, voluminous space inside the cafe. So much space!

This is not the case of this painting alone. We have seen many other paintings (almost all the paintings that feel Hopperesque) with a similar physical effect. The Nighthawks, Office in a Small City, Night Windows, etc all show two elements; one is a confined space like an office, restaurant, or any room, and the other is the open world, both equally empty and quiet, yet in contrast with each other. 

So the woman sitting alone, quietly drinking coffee with no one nearby and the outside world drenched in pitch blackness, something akin to a void makes this painting feel even more lonely, cutting off the viewers from everyone else. First, there’s a distance between the viewers and the lonely woman. Then we see that she is the only human in sight, distant and alone. 

This amplifies the feeling of being alone. Seeing the only human that can be seen and she too is alone and far away from us. A painting with just an empty restaurant could never bring this emotion. An empty restaurant would look dead with nothing human to tether to. This is why her being alone was necessary.

How to feel this painting 

To feel this painting, first, you must feel what the lonely woman is feeling. Some subtle signs reveal a few things about this woman. First, the way she is dressed is a cold night or morning. The heater sits right beside her. But what is she feeling? 

The place where she is sitting tells a lot about her thoughts. Notice how she sits right next to the entrance door? It is either very late at night or very early in the morning. The lady, all dressed for work or something significant, walked into the restaurant and got herself a cup of coffee or tea.

The lady must be in a rush, either to go back to her home or to work. She sits close to the door because that was the first seat she saw and took it immediately. The place is not crowded at all, so that seat was her choice. She is just grabbing a quick cup of caffeine before she heads out again, into the void. 

Notice how only one of her gloves is off. Yes, it is cold and perhaps she isn’t warm enough to take the coat or glove off, but it can also be that she’s in a hurry. She comes in, takes a cup of coffee, takes off only one glove so that her exodus can be quick.

You can hear the quietness, the stillness of the scene. But the meaning of the painting and what Hopper wanted to convey is the rush that people have gotten into. How people are always lacking a meaningful moment with friends and family. Perhaps the lady here is thinking that she has to get back to work and yet she could not take a moment out of her day for herself. 

This painting was featured in the Time magazine cover of August 1995 and the tagline read “Stress, anxiety, depression: the new science of evolutionary psychology finds the root of modern maladies in our genes”. The painting shows how lonely we have become in the crowd, how we are surrounded by so many people and yet know no one. 

Remember that this painting was done in the 20s which is said to be one of the most robust periods of economic growth. And how did this economic growth sustain? People working day and night, trying to earn that dollar. Clearly, in search of money, people had no time for life. That is what this woman embodies: A moment of self-reflection and introspection, lasting only some minutes before one goes back into the void.

This was all about the Automat painting. Here are some more articles analyzing painting that you will find interesting. Take a look: