Edward Hopper is known for making paintings that portray still moments so brilliantly that it can multiply the intensity of that stillness. Most of his paintings evoke a sense of isolation, loneliness, and quietness. Chop Suey painting by Hopper is perhaps his second most popular work, the first being the Nighthawks. And both these paintings share the same theme.
One thing you may have noticed in almost all of the paintings by Hopper is the use of a large window that separates the outside and the inside world. Chop Suey also has the very same window and it plays a pivotal role in creating the atmosphere for the scene. But what’s this painting trying to show, or more aptly, what’s this painting trying to invoke?
About the painting
Name of the painting: Chop Suey
Painter: Edward Hopper
Date of completion: 1929
Dimensions: 2 feets 8 inches x 3 feets 2 inches (96.5 x 81 cm)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Style: Social realism, Modernism
Genre: Genre painting
Price: Sold to a private buyer for $91.1 million, making it Hopper’s most expensive painting.
The structure of the scene
The viewers are placed inside a restaurant in New York City. We can only see two tables. The focus of the scene is the woman wearing green, her face being the brightest spot on the painting. The restaurant is called Chop Suey and it looks like a Chinese place with the oriental teapot and china bowl suggesting that.
As common with other of Hopper’s works, there is the use of straight, transverse lines giving the painting a very clear perspective. This use of straight lines gives the painting a very orderly look, everything inside the restaurant sits well-spaced, and the space is very airy.
The primary colors in this painting are red and yellow. The yellow window panes, lamp-shade, and the sunlight. The furniture and the walls of the restaurant are red (reddish-brown). But it isn’t just the color, but the shade which makes the painting catch your eyes.
All the colors of this painting have a fluorescent, garish tone that makes the scene look very dry. So the distinct vision of this painting and why it looks unique can be attributed partly to the combination of warm colors and the dry feeling of it. But that’s the painting, what is the meaning of it?
Meaning of Chop Suey painting
From what I have seen and read, there are a lot of critics trying to find the meaning behind this painting. Some wild theories that I have heard include that the woman sitting next to the subject is her doppelganger. Why? Because she’s wearing a blue cap as well. That’s not the case. The actual meaning of the painting is quite simple.
The painting is about changing city life, a slice of the hundreds of scenes that you would see in a large city. I want you to imagine walking in a crowded street in New York City. Perhaps you are left for office or you have to be somewhere important. And like you, everyone on the street has the same urgency. So what would you notice about the city? Nothing.
When we are walking around the streets, we hardly look at the world around us. There is nothing to notice. We might look at a cafe or a restaurant but then move along. The things that we miss in these moments are what Hopper captured and fascinated us with.
Think about it, there is no spectacular scene being portrayed here. Just two women waiting for their food, talking about their daily affairs. And if you walked past them, you might get a glimpse of it, but that would be momentary. It would exist for a second and then be lost forever. But there’s more to it.
There is an undertone of loneliness in this painting. Not just this, but most of Hopper’s paintings. Critics have pointed that out and while Hopper never acknowledged the motive of invoking loneliness in the viewers through his painting, this is something that I have felt too.
This stems mostly because of the scenes he depicts. He chose isolated spots of the city, showing scenes where nothing is happening. This is very contrary to the scene being depicted. A large city is expected to be very lively, crowded but Hopper shows lonely quiet places within structures that are excessively lifeless. This is what invokes the sense of loneliness.
Hopper and his wife Jo went to similar restaurants a lot during their earlier years of marriage. Perhaps this is what he might have remembered from one of his visits? The woman in focus is modeled after Jo, like all of his woman subjects. And many people have noticed her expression to be an important element in the painting.
The woman’s expression
Another enigma that many critics have created about this painting is the expression on the woman’s face. I’ve read that there is an expression of tension, an uneasiness in the face of the woman. She is said to be very distant from the person she is sitting with. But I don’t see that at all. I think she has a normal expression and she is listening to her friend.
Hopper did not have the intention to show the loneliness which city life presents to many. He just wanted to capture the other side of a bustling city, the opposite side of it. Quiet, motionless, clean, and isolated. And when one sees such a side of a busy city, they are bound to feel a sense of loneliness. The woman is not lonely, she’s just sitting on the quiet side of the city. The rush and activity are happening on the other side of the window.
In the period when Hopper started painting city life, women were coming out of their houses and working with men, sharing both the workspace and the recreation space. This is the reason why we see so many women sitting in cafes and restaurants or working in offices. Not because Hopper wanted to show them, but because that is what he saw. And this changing population interested him. And that is the reason why the subject here is a woman.
This painting is about a scene that one could see on a busy city day if they stopped and looked. Hopper has portrayed a contrasting picture. On the other side of the window is a city that is full of rush and deadlines and work. But on the inside, it is about quietness, stillness, and silence. The window divides the two worlds. And the people inside? They are the viewers.
Hopper uses human subjects to transport the viewers into the painting. If it was just a painting of an empty cafe, you wouldn’t feel the serene calmness and even the loneliness. It would be just a lifeless place. But Hopper puts people inside the scene to make us feel what they are feeling, at the same time showing the entire scene to us so that we can get the feeling of the atmosphere. This is why we get the feeling of loneliness.
This concludes the article. But that should not be the end of the reading. Here are some other articles related to Edward Hopper that you will find interesting.