What’s the symbolism in New York Office by Edward Hopper?
- Three figures, light fixtures, and frames
- Starring Hitchcock’s cool blonde
- A minor character disappears into the office building
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New York Office exudes classic Edward Hopper themes. His paintings show lonely subjects. They wear wistful expressions. We find them in strange but everyday places. Hopper cycled through landscapes and interiors. But this piece gives us both. That’s part of why it resonates with even more desolation than Hopper’s usual.
There’s a distinctive clarity and mood in Edward Hopper paintings. He defines subjects and settings with clean lines and simple shapes. We know these places. They are typical, American spots. For example, New York Office portrays an ordinary workplace. Hopper gives a carbon copy of a window into the world. Instead of either an interior or exterior, we get both.
In this way, the painter points out that work lives in a place separated from the rest of life. The blonde woman Hopper presents in New York Office brings this idea to life. She holds a letter while standing before the window. Her position at the large picture window isn’t work-related. It’s as if she’s off duty at the moment. This sparks a question for viewers. The letter may have pulled her away from her business. She’s also not dressed for work. It doesn’t matter what year it is (1962). A strapless dress isn’t work attire, unless you’re Marilyn Monroe.
So, questions that may arise from these details vary. What’s in the letter? Why is she event-dressed at the office? Then once we look behind her, viewers note the biggest question – Who’s the lurker? When I first saw the figure at the back of New York Office it reminded me of a mystery movie. In fact, I still think of this as the Alfred Hitchcock of Hopper paintings. This painting dates to 1962, the peak of Hitchcock’s career. It also resonates with suspense, secrets, and a remote blonde. That’s a perfect Hitchcock trifecta.
There are many types of Realism. But at its core, all Realism represents subjects in a manner that’s true to life. A realist artist shows us what they see in their artwork. In many ways this means Realism helps viewers see the world around them anew.
Museums give us a lens into how artists see. A realist painter, therefore, may offer a fresh perspective on everyday life. Edward Hopper, for example, imbues paintings like New York Office with palpable loneliness. He highlights the human condition in a familiar setting. This shows how a realistic portrayal of an everyday space may speak to loftier ideas.
Hitchcock and Hopper both loved to portray cool, cryptic, blondes. New York Office epitomizes this for Hopper. Much like in a Hitchcock movie, the blonde isn’t our only character in frame. But she’s the only one we notice at first. The story revolves around her. Even so, we can only speculate about who she is. This painting works like a story prompt. It makes us want to fill in the blanks. The other figures and Hopper’s distinct symbols and choices help give us clues.
Three people play the parts in New York Office. A trio of light fixtures punctuate the office ceiling. This hints at a love triangle. The figures are two women and a man. Center stage, the blonde tilts her head and reads a letter. A man skulks behind her, faceless, hairless and nondescript – an almost mannequin. He could have his back to us viewers. But there’s a visceral sense that he’s watching the blonde read the letter. That’s because of his position. He stands behind her and between her and the exit door. Hopper also positions this figure between the blonde and another woman. It’s easy to miss her at first. We can only see her back.
Even more discomfiting, she seems to disappear into the office building. That slick illusion makes this painting extra special. At the bottom on our right we can see what appears to be the shadow of the building’s corner. But look a bit deeper and it’s not a shadow at all. This is a woman’s dress. It gives the woman a ghost quality. She’s present in the painting. Yet, Hopper also obscures her so much that it’s as if she’s not there. There’s more to this mystery than a blonde and a mannequin man. Another woman is disappearing right before our eyes.
She vanishes. It’s polar opposite to the blonde’s status. Hopper focuses in on her with several frames in New York Office. The desk in front of her creates a new frame within the office. This office building also closes her in with double framing; as does the outside alleyway. Even the shadows and wall corners to our left in the scene seem to further narrow the frame toward this blonde. She’s the focal point. It’s the only element of the painting Hopper made clear.
The entire rest of the painting seems ambiguous, even improbable, in places. Notice how the desk seems to sit right up against the sidewalk. Where is the outside wall between this office and the outside world? Hopper has stripped it away for us. He brings us in close to this New York Office. Yet the mystery remains. We have to make up much of the story. These three characters have drama for certain. Still, this masterpiece reeks with their isolation as well. It’s a workplace cliché that surrounded by others we sometimes feel the loneliest.
New York Office – FAQs
What is Edward Hopper known for?
Hopper was a consummate New York artist of the early 20th century. Born in Nyack, he spent most of his life in Manhattan. This was the world he painted. But rather than elevate or denigrate city life, Hopper points out its loneliness.
A recluse who struggled in his early career, he channeled these experiences into his work. Hopper’s most famous painting, Nighthawks, illustrates this to perfection. In it, figures share a space. But their palpable ennui gives the scene a sense of desolation.
This was Hopper’s special sauce. He portrayed everyday life with a spotlight on loneliness. No matter how many people populate his painting, they’re also, somehow, each alone.
What inspired Edward Hopper’s artwork?
Hopper scrambled to find success as a painter until the early 1920s. A movie lover, in 1914 he found work making movie posters. Though Hopper loved the subject matter, he wasn’t a fan of illustrating. Lucky for him, only a few years later Hopper would meet his wife, fellow painter Josephine Nivison.
She served as great help and inspiration in Hopper’s career. Josephine got him into galleries and museums. She also modeled for his work. Art historians often assume blondes in his paintings are Nivison. She was his muse in almost every aspect of Hopper’s life and work.
Enjoyed this New York Office analysis?
Check out these other essays on American painters.
Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. New York: Rizzoli, 2007
Kuh, Katherine, “The Artist’s Voice: Talks With Seventeen Artists”. Harper & Row, 1962
Deborah Lyons, Edward Hopper: A Journal of His Work. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997
Updike, John, “Hopper’s Polluted Silence” Still Looking: Essays on American Art. New York: Knopf, 2005
See Edward Hopper’s New York Office as part of the Blount Collection at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts