His tweet has since generated nearly 70,000 retweets and more than 220,000 likes. It’s among the many Hopper memes that have proliferated on social media. Another tweet showing a close-up of a Hopper painting of a woman sitting on a bed, staring out a window read, “We choose modern loneliness because we want to be free. But when the freedoms of modern life are removed, what’s left but loneliness?” Ethan Lasser, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, declared on Twitter that Hopper “is the unexpected poet of our moment.”
But while some Hopper experts appreciate the wave of interest in the American painter, who died in 1967, they say it’s a mistake to brand him as a patron saint of loneliness and social isolation. “He didn’t feel a sort of social stigma, or that just because you are with yourself that you’re not entirely content,” says Sarah Kelly Oehler, chair and curator of American art at the Art Institute of Chicago. “I think that there’s some misrepresentation there.”
Her museum is home to “Nighthawks,” which OverstockArt.com recently depicted with the label: “Hopper, the master of social distancing,” to illustrate a blog post about the artist’s work. An iconic image of the 20th century, it sprang from another period of widespread anxiety; Hopper began painting it just days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. In it, four people appear in a fluorescent-lit diner on an otherwise dark street corner. One patron’s back is turned to the viewer, while the other two, a man and woman, sit side-by-side at the counter; a single worker is behind the bar. Whereas 21st-century pandemic shut-ins see a reflection of themselves, Oehler says Hopper saw something else. “The great story that he would tell was that this was about imagining what it would be like in a blacked-out city to come across this brightly lit diner with people in it,” she says.
The artist himself once said of “Nighthawks”: “I didn’t see it as particularly lonely,” even as he conceded, “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” Oehler also notes that Hopper chose to paint a small community rather than a lone figure. “Maybe it is a way of creating a connection that otherwise might not be there,” she says.
Oehler suggests the Hopper-curious check out the 30 Hopper paintings, etchings and drypoints in the Art Institute’s collection online, several of which show people interacting, sometimes even in large groups. In “The Two Pigeons” (1920), for example, a couple kiss passionately.
In Hopper’s oeuvre, Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and co-organizer of its 1999 show “Edward Hopper: The Watercolors,” sees affirmation of aloneness, rather than a sense of foreboding. “Just because someone is alone does not necessarily mean they’re lonely, even if the isolation is imposed by circumstance,” she says. For those seeing Hopper memes on social media who want to better understand the artist’s work, Mecklenburg recommends they check out his watercolors, drawings and prints. “He seemed to have a different persona working in each medium,” she says. “By Googling, you’ll get dozens and dozens of Hoppers that will give you a sense of the breadth and the depth of this guy that you won’t get from looking at a single painting, no matter how iconic it is.”
(Although temporarily closed, the Phillips Collection in the District had planned to open the exhibit “Hopper in Paris” on May 23, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, which earlier this year concluded the exhibit “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” has a 14-part audio tour of the show on its website.)
Michael Lobel, professor of art history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, says he understands why the Hopper quarantine memes have taken off. Many of Hopper’s Paris works, which he made early in his artistic career, do show architecture and cityscapes devoid of people. There’s even a preparatory sketch that Hopper made, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, that portrays the diner in “Nighthawks” without the four people. “A major part of his pictorial imagination was to imagine a world or settings without figures at all,” Lobel says.
But he thinks the works are less negative or pessimistic than many are interpreting them to be. And rather than adhere to the “constant drumbeat” around Hopper and alienation and detachment, he advises viewers to look at the spaces, places and architecture in the paintings and in real life to see traces of human presence even when no people are visible. “That certainly resonates with what’s going on right now, but maybe in a more human or humane kind of way,” Lobel says.
Lobel is decidedly more optimistic about the Hopper social-distancing memes than some of his counterparts, noting many have drawn tens of thousands of “likes” on Facebook. “To me, that is evidence that art in our digital age still can have an incredibly powerful impact. It’s very meaningful to people. It’s an expression of human creativity and imagination, and that’s important to people,” he says. “I think it’s wonderful and a really positive sign that people turn to art in difficult times.”
Tisserand agrees. Since posting his Hopper tweet, the New Orleans writer has been called “dumb” and told that Hopper works are about light and not the isolation. But he doesn’t regret sharing. “What we bring to him is not going to be what we necessarily take away from him. That is the one little thing that I offered with this tweet, was getting people to spend time with an artist instead of the latest anti-Trump meme, which certainly occupies a lot of my visual space. But to spend time with an artist who can speak to us across generations of tragedies and triumphs. That that might help us get to a more meditative place instead of simply a more anxious place.”
Menachem Wecker is a writer in Washington.