Edward Hopper is known to paint the city life but not in the sense one would imagine the city life to be a noisy, crowded place with barely any space to walk and time to breathe. But Hopper’s works were quite the contrary, although evoking the same feelings. He showed people alone in a gigantic sea of nothingness. The painting Office at Night does the same thing but in a very emotion-evoking manner.
Office at Night, as the name suggests, is a painting depicting a scene at a small office in the late hours of the night. There are two people in the office, still working. As it is customary with all Hopper’s paintings, the viewers are placed at a distance from the scene and there are windows near the subjects. The bright street light enters the room and illuminates the garishly-colored interior. But the painting is clean and minimal.
We’ll be analyzing the image and find the meaning behind the painting as a whole and the subtle elements in it such as the man reading the paper, the woman standing near the cabinet, the small size of the office, etc. But before that, here’s some general information about the painting.
About the painting Office at Night
Name: Office at Night
Painter: Edward Hopper
Year of completion: 1940
Style: Modernism, Realism
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Location: Walker Art Center, Minnesota
Dimension: 22.2 inch x 25.1 inch (56.4 cm × 63.8 cm) (almost 2 feet x 2 feet)
Visual analysis of Office at Night
The viewers are given a higher perspective of the room. The room is a small office space with two people working in the late hours. An old gentleman sits on the table near the window while a young woman is standing near a file cabinet. This is the quiet and still scene depicted in the painting.
With the idiosyncratic style of Edward Hopper, the painting is visually divided into multiple segments with transverse lines. A common structural theme with most of his paintings is that the structure in which the subjects are looks like a vessel, with the window showing the vastness of the outside world. Look at the bottom-right corner of the painting. The converging lines create this effect of giving the room a wedge-shaped corner.
The colors play a very important visual role in Hopper’s paintings, including this. The bright green carpet, the dark green file cabinet, the dull green suit of the gentleman, the green colors are used in excess.
Even the walls have a green tint to them, so does the light coming from outside, The shadows on the outside wall have a green tint. The woman is wearing a greenish-blue dress and her body and body language will be discussed later.
The other major color here is red, reddish-brown to be more specific. The wooden tables, the chair, and the doors all have this shade of red. The use of these two colors for the interiors of office and public spaces are also seen in other of Hopper’s paintings such as The Nighthawks, Automat, Night Windows, Room in New York, etc.
The use of these colors creates a very dry, dull yet garish effect. It shows the dreary and lifeless nature of the offices and cities and provokes a sense of loneliness. Look at the painting and see how there is a lack of warmth in the scene. Everything feels so…dead.
The office is clean, minimal and there is enough space for these two people. It is airy and not at all crowded. Yet why do the viewers feel a sense of tightness in the scene, a feeling of restrictiveness? This is because the room is not a room but a part of a bigger room.
The placement of the wooden wall and door on the left side of the canvas shows that the room is just a separate space made by placing the wall. This restriction is what makes the scene so cramped and small, even if it is clean and airy. I must also mention the reason why it looks so clean is because of the use of transverse lines, one of Hopper’s signature styles in structuring the painting.
The two Nighthawks
Whenever you look at paintings, remember that almost always the subject of the painting is placed at the center of the canvas. That applies to this painting as well, but Hopper has also added another element to let us know that these two people are the subject of this painting.
Look at the light coming from the window. The light projects on the wall, creating a rectangular window on the wall. It is almost like a painting within a painting. Now, look at what’s inside this canvas of “light”. Imagine looking from the window instead of where Hopper has put us. You’d see the woman standing behind the gentleman, with her curves (notice how the light covers her hips and bosom). You’d see this man lost in reading. They are the subject of the painting.
From what we can make out, the woman is the secretary to the man. This is probably a law firm. This is the professional relationship between the two. But what about personal?
The relation between the man and the woman
The woman sits next to the man, on the table where the typewriter sits. She’s wearing a blue dress with a white collar and a neckline that plunges without hesitation. The dress is tight, hugging her body, bringing out her curves. She is perhaps the curviest and voluptuous woman that Hopper has ever painted.
The woman knows her body and what to wear to accentuate her figure. She has red lipstick on and her hair is done. At this late hour, she looks as fresh as someone at 9 am on a workday. But the way she looks at the man shows that she might want to, or already has, a romantic relationship with him. Sadly, the same feeling does not seem to be reciprocated by the man.
The man seems to be busy with this urgent work that has made both of them stay this late. He looks lost in reading the paper and would perhaps ask for more from the filing cabinet. The lady gives him the papers, hoping that he might look at her and perhaps compliment her. But none of that happens and you can see the dejected look on her face.
The woman is perhaps in love with him, in this tight corner office where they see each other every day for hours. They talk, share experiences, and even some secrets too. And maybe this has led to the infatuations. But does the man love her? Does he care what she’s wearing and how she looks? She’s a beautiful woman and the dress makes her irresistible to look at.
The meaning of the painting
Hopper confirmed that the inspiration for this painting (or such scene) came to him during his commute on the L trains (elevated trains) in New York. The train ride would give him a glimpse of the office interior and people working, burning the midnight oil. This is very important to know to get the meaning of the painting. Like the painter, Edward Hopper, the meaning of this painting (and the relation between the two people) is just speculation. Let me elaborate.
The painter wanted to show a scene from an office that one sees while on a train. This scene lasts only momentarily. Like a picture that passes by. The viewer will see this scene from the window, from where the light enters. So whatever is in the “light canvas” is what the viewers will see.
So for a moment, you’ll see this woman, dressed beautifully standing near the file cabinet, staring intently at the man sitting near her. The man gazes into the papers, trying to read them. He’s lost in work and cares the least about the woman, at least for this moment. We get to see a slice of their office life through this window.
The reality could be anything. They could be just two office workers with no romantic relationship. Perhaps the man could be married, yet lost to the temptation of this voluptuous woman, committing adultery. Or perhaps the woman does not like this man but has to win his favor. It could be anything.
The meaning of this painting is this: We get to see this scene momentarily. From what we see, we have to make up our own story. It could be very well close to reality or something completely made up. But none of that matters because it was an ephemeral scene, lost forever.
This concludes the article. But why not read some more interesting articles about spectacular paintings? Here are some to choose from: