I Look At This Painting Everyday
Edward Hopper’s perfectly painted dilemma, but what exactly is it?
For a few years now, I’ve had a postcard of this painting tacked to my study wall. It’s called Pennsylvania coal town and it was made by Edward Hopper in 1947.
Whenever I stop my work and look up at this painting, I can’t help but feel that Hopper painted something I recognise. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I recognise it anyway. He got it right, which is a very vague way of saying that he found something which is essentially true about being alive.
Whatever this truth is, it has nothing especially to do with coal mining in Pennsylvania, not for me at least. I’ve never been to Pennsylvania; that’s not the world I live in. But it does have something to do with a man raking his front lawn and the sun beginning to set, and with the way he pauses for a second, looking out to the distance. It is a truth captured in the particular spacing between the two houses, whose fronts are in shadow and whose sides are bathed in the yellow light of the late afternoon.
It is an instant of human behaviour we can probably all identify with. The man has stopped midway through a mundane task, gazing off beyond the canvas — and in a sense, beyond his own life.
I wonder who has not paused like this once in a while and apprehended something about their circumstances that words cannot quite articulate? A moment of perception, perhaps of sorrow too, when a fresh thought ignites and the soft flame of understanding illuminates a new perception.
Is the painting about looking back or looking forward? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s about facing up to a difficult choice, one that has to be made someday soon.
The painting also acts as a metaphor for solipsism: how the external world and other minds are to some degree a mystery to us all. What this man is looking at is known to him alone. We share the same world as him — in Hopper’s vision, a world of subways, apartment buildings and late-night diners — yet for a moment, this man is in that state of isolation that we…