When we think of great artworks, our imagination creates images of complex pictures with fine elements, each with unique meaning. An artist’s impression of everyday urban scenes may sound unimpressive and even superficial. Edward Hopper has a unique talent in bringing out the enigmatic quality of our familiar surroundings. This is further enhanced by his mysterious public personality. Office in a Small City is one such painting where he gives us an example of his signature style.
Initially trained as an illustrator, Edward Hopper slowly broadened his horizons and studied painting in the Ashcan School. After 1924, Hopper moved to depict urban life in his artwork. These works were characterised by pensive looking anonymous figures and a strong influence of geometric shapes. His precise use of lighting to heighten the sense of mysticism in his work is best seen in his painting titled ‘Nighthawks’. In his later years, during the 1960s, he was heavily influenced by Pop art and New Realistic styles of art.
Where is Office in a Small City Today?
Hopper began working on the Office in a Small City during the summer of 1953 in Cape Cod. After several months he completed the work in October in New York. This oil painting was put in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shortly after its completion.
Subject of the Painting
Like many of his paintings, Hopper reiterates a hallmark subject sitting in his corner office in a small city. We are looking at a male figure in solitude, seemingly alone and worn out both mentally and physically. It has been aptly named by the painter’s spouse as “the man in concrete wall”. This new title touches upon its most striking features, the isolated man and the concrete building where he sits.
The subject is seen sitting in an office room, leaning back in a chair, looking through the window. His rolled-up sleeves indicate that he is either done for the day or that he is feeling rather hot. The man looks lost or zoned out from his work at the moment. In either case, he is probably not engaged in office work. The scene has an air of loneliness, both physical and psychological.
The man in the painting appears to be gazing outside, not focusing on anything in particular. His posture and appearance reveal that he is in deep contemplative thought, demanding silence. The silence is enhanced by the disengaging atmosphere of the room and the man’s passive, immobile presence. The furniture in the office is very standard, a characteristic of the postwar American society in the 1950s, less than a decade after the Second World War.
Office in a Small City: Analysis and Meaning
The attention of the viewer tends to reside at first on the man who has been, highlighted by the frame of his office window. The frame separates him from the outside world, giving a sense of containment in the room, further intensifying his isolation. On closer observation, one may perceive the sharp contradiction between the dull, concrete sides of the building and its pretentious decorative front, seen in the bottom right of the painting.
This specific angle has been carefully selected by the painter to show the two sides of the building which subtly emulate the man’s personality and also that of the painter. The aim is twofold. First, it illustrates Hopper’s ambivalent views for traditional and modern twentieth-century culture. Second, this contrast depicts the difference between a person’s social appearance which is a facade for his inner more serious and desolate nature.
Another facet of the painting pointing toward detachment and loneliness is the location of the office in a high-rise building. Hopper made an obvious effort to drive the audience’s attention towards the concrete wall rather than the man in it. The figure has been moved to a side, off the centre to make way for the massive dull wall. The concrete wall covers the largest amount of area in the painting, demanding attention to its intense lifelessness. The man seems tiny in comparison to the concrete walls, making him look unimportant, engulfed by the limiting walls of his office, which is exactly how the man must be feeling. The massive windows of the office and the man’s relative insignificance in the concrete building intensify the vastness of his loneliness.
The perspective that has been chosen by the painter to depict ‘the man in concrete wall’ makes the corner of the office room look like the bow of a ship, and the man it’s pilot. The man looks out of the window with a general gaze making him seem like a ship’s pilot looking at the vast open sea in front of him. Again, this perspective heightens the sense of longing and a need for freedom from monotony.
Colours and Light
Whether the man is watching something intently or just daydreaming, his loneliness and inattention to his work reflect his desire to be free. Therefore, this sense of seclusion evokes a longing for an escape from one’s mundane life.
The most dominating colour in this piece is undeniably the off-white of the concrete walls. White is the colour of peace and calmness, but the off-white gives a sense of monotony, dullness and routine. Thus, with just a colour Hopper touches upon the salient emotions of the masterpiece.
The second colour that catches the eye is the bright blue in the sky. Even though blue points towards melancholic aspects of being tied down to a lonely, tasteless regimen, the vastness of the sky balances it with an intimation of freedom.
The building across from the office is painted in an ochre yellow colour which usually signifies warmth and radiance. However, like all the other infrastructure of the time, it is only the front of the building that has been ornate, thus the warmth is only a facade over the underlying monotony and confinement in dull off-white concrete buildings.
Edward Hopper has one of the most unique and evocative ways of using light in his artwork. He used lighting to create an anxious feeling of eeriness in his seemingly comfortable and familiar images. This strangeness is often created by the slightly inaccurate presentation of illumination. In ‘Office in a Small City,’ the sun rays entering from the windows aren’t parallel to each other. Moreover, Hopper ignores the light coming from the other window as a secondary source. However, the accuracy of light is beside the point of his art. Through this he makes a statement about the vastness of the window and the glaring emptiness that it illuminates.
Hopper’s work crafts the mundane scenarios of life in a way that could push you to the verge of existential crisis. The man’s loss of individuality is felt as clearly as his loneliness. A viewer feels compelled to form their personal narrative interpretation and imagination of what is taking place within the painting. Office in a Small City shows a long process of solitary contemplation which is evident in the months Hopper took to complete this painting. Using a simple scene of ordinary life, Office in a Small City showcases his exceptional skill as a visual artist and narrator.
FAQs – Office in a Small City
Why did Edward Hopper paint Office in a Small City?
Office in a small city was painted by Hopper during a time when the American business was booming. The artist skillfully captured an area of life that was common for every working personnel at the time. These feelings consist mostly of isolation, loneliness, and detachment. Even though the painting was created in 1953, it is relevant to this day.
What museums have Edward Hopper?
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York houses about 45 Edward Hopper paintings. Other museums and art galleries such as the Addison Gallery of American Art (Massachusetts), Carnegie Museum of Art, Philadelphia museum of art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum have smaller collections of Hopper’s work.
How did Edward Hopper become an artist?
Edward Hopper was inclined toward creating art from a young age. Through the support of his family, Hopper joined the New York School of Art and Design. After graduating he worked in an advertising agency. Soon he became interested in painting urban, architectural scenes through which Hopper explored his own art style – Nouveau Realism.
Why did Edward Hopper paint Nighthawks?
The importance of Nighthawks is embedded in the worldly affairs that were prevalent at the time of its creation. Hopper started to paint the Nighthawks after the bombing of pearl harbor. It is largely believed that the painting reflects the loneliness one feels during war.
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