Soir Bleu – The Psychological Depths of Hopper’s Masterpiece

Cover image soir bleu

Edward Hopper’s 1914 painting “Soir Bleu” is a mysteriously underrated work that has captivated art enthusiasts for over 100 years. While it is often viewed as another trendily obscure painting by Hopper, it reveals more about the artist than he typically divulged in his works. 

Hopper’s risk in creating this decadent piece is notable, as he ventures into the realm of sad clowns, evoking striking and melancholic imagery. At just 32 years old, Hopper painted a modern-day sad clown that continues to provoke thought to this day. 

In this article, we’ll delve into an analysis of “Soir Bleu,” exploring the themes and emotions in Hopper’s last work before he rose to fame.

Hopper’s Life in Soir Bleu

Edward Hopper, the renowned American painter, was a lifelong resident of bustling New York City. His painting Soir Bleu (1914) pays tribute to the time he spent in Paris, capturing the essence of Parisian culture. 

The title itself, which is in French and translates to “Blue Evening,” adds to the painting’s French aesthetic. Some might even view this painting as a Parisian version of his iconic “Nighthawks”. 

Despite his frequent tours to Paris, his 1914 painting, Soir Bleu, showcases his unwavering Americanness. Hopper’s pessimistic approach to art has gained relevance in the present era, making his work increasingly significant in the 21st century. 

Hopper remained unaffected by the continental trends and ideas and was not drawn to contemporary trends such as abstract art and Cubism. He stayed true to his then-outdated style, and it took several decades for him to receive due recognition. 

The Contrast

Soir Bleu stands out as a distinctive and daring painting in Edward Hopper’s career. Not only is it his largest canvas yet, measuring 183×91 cm, but it also deviates from his usual American subjects. 

Soir Bleu is an unconventional piece for Hopper, as most of his previous works were landscapes or cityscapes with minimal human figures. In contrast, this painting is a figure painting and shows Hopper’s desire to create large canvases like those of Matisse and Picasso.

The painting depicts Parisian characters in an outdoor cafe, each representing a different level of the Parisian society. Upon closer inspection, the figures in Soir Bleu stand out as unique individuals, each isolated from the others. 

Hopper depicts them in an everyman setting, portraying a world of urban entertainment where people search for meaning in various forms, such as costumes, prostitutes, drinks, cigarettes, or parties.

Very unlike himself, Hopper reveals too much in Soir Bleu. He pushes the idea that the clown hides an important message rather than keeping the message subtle. The clown appears outwardly cheerful and festive, but is actually a lonely and troubled man, almost hitting the viewer over the head with this revelation.

The Analysis of Soir Bleu

Soir Bleu (1914) by Edward Hopper.
Soir Bleu (1914) by Edward Hopper. Licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Fair Use.

The Setting and the Subjects

Subjects

The painting Soir Bleu depicts a café in France where seven individuals of different classes of Parisian society are gathered. The focus of the painting is a clown dressed in all-white attire with red accents around his lips and eyes, sitting at a table and smoking a cigarette. 

Another man with a cigar sits by himself at a table on the clown’s far right, speculated to be a pimp. Standing at the clown’s right is a woman with flamboyant makeup who could either be a waitress or a prostitute talking to potential clients. 

Two other men are seated at the clown’s table but do not seem to notice him. One of them appears to be a military man with epaulettes while the other is a bearded bohemian. A well-to-do couple in evening wear is seated at the clown’s left, seeming to be faintly aware of him.

Some art analysts speculate that the clown in the painting is a self-portrait representing Hopper’s identification with misunderstood outcasts and performers of his time. Some of the other individuals in the café may be portraits of real people. 

For instance, the man sharing the clown’s table resembles a side profile of Vincent Van Gogh, and the cool colors on his face are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s art style.

The man seated on the clown’s left resembles a portrait of Edgar Degas, an artist who greatly inspired Hopper.  It is possible that Hopper identified himself with his fellow artists in the painting.

Setting

The way the scene is arranged creates a feeling that the viewer is observing the subject without their knowledge, which can make us feel like a stalker. The subject in the painting is portrayed as vulnerable, lonely, isolated, and disconnected from the world around them, which adds to their vulnerability. 

This unease of being a stalker somehow draws our gaze even more strongly toward the subject. The couples in the painting seem to share the same physical space but inhabit different worlds, and there is zero interaction among the people in the single frame.

The subjects in Hopper's "Soir Bleu"
The subjects in Hopper’s “Soir Bleu”

The Meaning Behind Soir bleu

The painting by Hopper is strikingly unusual compared to his typical plein-air pieces from Paris. It is difficult to discern whether the setting is indoors or outdoors, adding to its peculiar nature.

The artwork effectively captures the feeling of being in a foreign culture. 

Hopper conveys the striking difference between loneliness in America and Paris. In his American-based paintings, he portrays empty public spaces where people sit alone, comfortable with their solitude. 

However, in his painting of a Parisian café, the place is filled with people, yet they appear disconnected from one another. For instance, the clown, shares his table with two people, while there’s no real connection among the group. The woman in the green dress shares her personal space with this group but is only faintly aware of their existence.

Hopper’s artwork presents a contrast between Americans and Parisians while also conveying a sense of detachment that is oddly similar between them. The painting effectively portrays a group of people who are all putting on a public facade while privately struggling with sorrow.

Each individual is unique and separated from others, creating a world of alienation and searching for meaning through various means such as costumes, drinks, parties, and more.

Although Hopper’s style typically lacks humor or self-awareness, this painting reveals a deeper insight into the theme. The sad clown smoking in a café may represent a poignant scene that resonated with the painter.

There is a compelling argument that the clown serves as a self-portrait for Hopper. Both the painter and the performer struggle with the need for validation in the absence of an audience. The clown is physically separated from the other people by a partition, further emphasizing his isolation.

The similarity

Edward Hopper’s painting “Soir Blue” depicts a scene where the people are frozen and static, much like his later and well-known work “Nighthawks” from 1942. This sense of disconnect is a recurring theme in Hopper’s paintings, and the setting of the scene further emphasizes it.

The sad clown is an evocative image that has captured the attention of many. It is a poignant reminder that what we see on the outside may not reflect what is going on inside. This paradox is known as the Sad Clown Paradox, and it has been studied by psychologists to understand why it is so moving.

At its core, the Sad Clown Paradox is about the contrast between our expectations and reality. Clowns are often associated with joy and laughter, so when we see a clown that is sad, it creates a powerful and lasting impression. This paradox has been linked to the idea that individuals may hide their pain or sadness behind a facade of happiness, much like a clown does in their performance.

One famous example of the sad clown is depicted in Edward Hopper’s painting, which has similarities to Jan Mtejko’s 19th-century painting titled “Stanczyk”. However, what makes the image so powerful is not just its artistic value but the emotional depth it conveys.

The setting of the café has a vague resemblance to a ship, similar to other paintings by Hopper like “The Man in a concrete wall” and “Nighthawks.” The café appears to be on a ship’s deck, and the dark blue design on the wall symbolizes waves at sea. The scene can be interpreted as being in the middle of nowhere, intensifying the feeling of disconnection.

Aftermath

Edward Hopper’s 1914 painting “Soir Blue,” received mixed reviews from critics when he exhibited it alongside a New York street painting. Despite the positive feedback for the latter, Soir Bleu did not garner the same level of enthusiasm, prompting Hopper to store it away and shift his focus to American subjects. 

It wasn’t until many years after his passing that the painting resurfaced. “Soir Blue” evokes a nostalgic ambiance, reminiscent of classic cinema, and remains a notable work in Hopper’s oeuvre.

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