It’s just a painting of two rooms, one of which is partially obstructed. It’s simple, and yet there is a strangeness to it. Something about it forces us to look closer, to resolve the quality in it that is naggingly wrong, or maybe just ambiguous or incongruous. There may be a momentary spark of connection, something within us that “gets it,” but that we can’t articulate. Could it be that some aspect of our current lived reality–pandemic, multiple existential fears–mirrors that arrangement of brushstrokes?
Rooms by the Sea (1951), painted by mid-20th-century realist artist Edward Hopper, begs further questions: What is the point of this strange painting of empty rooms? What makes it odd, and why does it even matter?
A closer look at both the artist and the work offers clues. Hopper is well known for depicting urban settings, landscapes, and interiors that capture a sense of alienation and loneliness. He had a sunny coastal home in Truro, Cape Cod, which was thought to be the inspiration for this painting. In this image, one room seems to be a pleasantly furnished parlor partially obscured by a wall. The other room is empty save for a door leading directly out to sea. But there are no steps, no yard, no pathway, just an unending expanse of waves lapping below the doorway, without any clues to judge distance. That’s peculiar enough, but in addition, the harsh, monstrous patches of light streaming in don’t correspond to a common rectangular doorway. These details create a vague sense of uneasiness.
In the lecture “At Hopper’s Doorstep,” (2017) John Walsh, Director Emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum and visiting professor in the department of art history at Yale, the painting’s permanent home, states: “For [Hopper] what’s commonly regarded as dependable reality is actually in flux, evasive, unreliable. Appearances deceive. Humans are absent from the picture, but Hopper is here.” It’s not an objective truth we are seeing, Walsh implies, but an uncanny reality as distilled through the painter’s character. It’s a truth smeared with originality and eccentricity, one that approaches self-portraiture.
This particular painting mysteriously drew me in the moment I saw it, when we were first ordered to stay home in mid-March. I was familiar with Edward Hopper but had never encountered one of his works that was so cryptic and surreal. I knew that there was something potent about this work, something that seemed to capture this moment in history, but I couldn’t articulate it until I sat down and started writing about it.
As a psychiatrist, I am naturally drawn to the emotional significance of art. In this series, I want to explore how art can capture the emotions of anxiety and fear and longing that we all feel given the pandemic and the state of our world right now. Does art help us, in a wordless way, to better understand and articulate what we’re feeling? I am also interested in exploring how art can alleviate those fears by taking us to inspiring and hopeful places. I want to look at the art of historical periods that were in upheaval like ours is and find thematic threads that mirror our own collective emotions. How did the artists of these periods express that upheaval, and was there a way that the beauty in art helped counter their fears?
Those traces of Hopper’s inner truths, wordlessly laid bare on the canvas, resonate with our own.
Perhaps that explains the flicker of connection that I felt on first approaching the work. Like other works by Hopper, this painting seems to reflect our loneliness as we quarantine and remain socially distant. Rooms by the Sea also seems to capture the psychic tension resulting from conflicting states of mind. There are binary choices here. There is the comforting parlor on one side and the excitement and freedom of the vast sea on the other. And yet, against the backdrop of numerous crises at this moment in history, the parlor morphs into a stark reminder of intolerable isolation, and the sea becomes an outer world with the potential to be dangerously, surreally frightening.
The painting was initially titled Rooms by the Sea. Alias the Jumping Off Place, but the alias was deleted due to “malignant overtones.” Was that jump about a suicide attempt, a metaphorical foray into the freeing unknown, or just a pleasurable dip in the sea? Walsh adds: “Hopper’s art was in choosing the fewest, simplest, most eloquent images that came to convey the essential realities of his own feelings, his choices…and those were often ambiguous or conflicted in ways that he could never fully resolve. Stay or go…Be private or public.” We can all relate to that ambivalence made visible by these two metaphorically opposing rooms.
Yet the destabilizing details also seem to ask what happens when those choices all become threatening, when we find ourselves stuck between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea. The misshapen spotlights masquerading as sunlight, the disorienting floor colors, the lack of cues that would allow us to judge distance to the ocean, all conspire to illuminate not just run-of-the-mill ambivalence, but perhaps a crisis born of no viable choices. Here, perhaps, Hopper is making the proverb visible, as we are stuck between two unwanted realities, potentially making us anxious, helpless, and full of self-doubt.
So maybe the crux of our connection to the work lies in the fact that we live in a world gripped with uncertainty and ambivalence. Do we stay inside that parlor and risk further isolation and loneliness, or go outside and risk those lapping waves of virus? Do we send our children to school and risk illness, or conceivably thwart their progress? What real choices do we have? None of them is easy or enticing. Hopper’s painting, like our lived reality, leaves us stuck in an in-between world, between hazards lurking in parlors and oceans. That prominent empty wall between dangers could also remind us to slow down, be mindful, and gather knowledge before making those choices.
Art and Mind is a series of articles about the intersection of art and psychiatry.