(Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper; Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Edward Hopper (b. 1887)

New York Interior, ca. 1921

On view at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Great Works, In Focus

Winning hand

In ‘New York Interior,’ Edward Hopper finds his most electrifying image

Edward Hopper’s “New York Interior,” ca. 1921). On view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper; Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Can we just talk for a second about that hand?

Yes, the one at the end of the young woman’s raised right arm. The one that is presumably holding a needle and pulling a thread — although Edward Hopper, master of economy, has not bothered to paint either.

Hopper was 39, still in the early phase of his late-starting career, when he painted it. I might say something different if you asked me tomorrow — that’s how art works, isn’t it? — but right now, there’s no question in my mind that this hand is the most electrifying passage of painting in all of Hopper, maybe all of American art.

Everything else about the work, which was painted around 1921 and hangs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is mellow and absorbent. It’s like a story by Anton Chekhov: there’s just enough detail for us to feel securely tethered to the real. The rest has been ruthlessly extracted.

What remains is elemental, biblical. In Hopper’s “New York Interior,” even the standout patches of local color — the red fabric at bottom left, the pale blue light reflecting off her skin, the yellow tile work to the right — are primaries. Visual building blocks. Like bricks of Lego. Like a C-major arpeggio.

But I’m talking as if the painting were abstract. It’s not. It shows a woman in a room. Just to look at it is to be put in the position of King David gazing spellbound at Bathsheba, or Actaeon at Diana in her forest grove. Except that it’s not a sexual picture in that way. What it does suggest is that truth, even in the modern world, is never just an almanac of facts. For its force to hit home, it has to have an aspect of revelation about it.

Hopper understood this. Hence the vulnerable nape of his subject’s neck, framed by her evenly parted hair, echoes the picture itself, which is framed at left and right by vertical black stripes, akin to parted stage curtains.

It’s all quite decorous. And then this incredible, claw-like, sinewy, abject, amputated-looking hand! It almost jumps out of the painting, like the wrinkled talons of a vulture.

I say “abject” and “vulture” only for effect, of course. Because to me this hand is incredibly beautiful. In a painting that otherwise strives toward an ideal, that takes great bother to extend the tradition of Velazquez and Vermeer — oil paint as a portal to serenity and stillness, to inner life — this tense and taut hand provides a precious flare-up of gaucheness, one that could only have been embraced and presented as fine art, you feel, in the 20th century.

Remember, Hopper painted “New York Interior” just a couple of years after a war that killed between 15 million and 19 million people, and left a higher number still maimed, shellshocked, facially disfigured, groggy with trauma, desperate and isolated. The end of that war, as we have all lately been reminded, coincided with a three-year flu pandemic which saw a third of the world’s population infected and 675,000 Americans killed.

But Hopper’s painting has nothing to do with numbers. It has to do instead with all the things you can’t count. It has something to do, I think, with the absent needle and thread and with an idea of repair. And it has to do, I feel sure, with people, faces, thoughts and feelings, all unseen, uncountable, unpainted, unknown.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.