If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is the look in someone’s eye. If you want to know what is at the core of a person’s being, you need only look into their eyes.
Of course, artists throughout history have been fascinated by the eyes of the figures they depict. Much of Edward Hopper’s (1882-1967) work reflects this interest in the power of a look. In my first article on Manet’s In the Conservatory (‘Dans la serre’), I analysed the looks of a married couple to try to gain some insight into their relationship. That is not possible for this analysis, as there is only one figure in Hopper’s painting. While the look of Hopper’s figure (modelled on his wife Jo) is more introspective, it still gives us an opportunity to analyse the figure’s relationship to their surroundings.
By 1952, Hopper was already a highly successful and renowned artist. He was also a bit of an oddity, as he seemed to fly in the face of the artistic trends of the day. Most notably, his American Realism stands in stark contrast to the growing abstraction in so-called ‘modern art’. His works often depict the industrialised urban landscapes of the United States and people who seem alienated both from their surroundings and themselves.
Thus also the figure in Morning Sun. Wearing a simple, salmon-coloured dress that has ridden up over their thigh, she sits in the centre of the frame on a white bed. Her knees are pulled close to her body, her arms are crossed and hold her legs. She seems to be looking towards the (presumably only) window in the room. This window serves as both the literal and metaphorical partition that separates the work into two discrete sections: the interior and the exterior. We cannot see everything that is outside the window (we are offered a small amount of blue sky and the top a building in the distance). In fact, even the window itself is cut off at the top. The sky seems to be illuminated from the bottom. This light source, though outside the frame of the work, is likely the morning sun of the title and also the point of connection between the interior and the exterior worlds of the painting. This connection is accentuated by the play of the light from outside the window on the wall and the bed behind the seated figure.
There is a long-standing western tradition of associating light (especially light illuminating dark rooms) with positive emotions. One need only think of John 8:12 ‘Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”’
Hopper breaks with that tradition here. The light depicted here does not provide warmth or salvation. The light is a foreign, unknown agent invading the safety of the room. The cold, harsh exterior world with its angular constructions uses the light to penetrate the home, the last retreat of privacy. This effect is heightened by the use of cold colours in combination with harsh yellows and soft, uneven greens. These colours are reflected on the walls of the room where they evoke feelings of anonymity, coldness, almost nausea. This light is not the light of bounty and wisdom, but rather the cold hard light of an indifferent urban world, itself lit by an indifferent sun that does not care for individuals and merely casts their shadows onto walls, bed, houses, or people.
Close inspection of the seated figure in the centre of the frame reveals an ambiguity as to her relationship to the outside world. Her head and back are unbowed. Her gaze is directed towards the exterior world. And yet it would be difficult to say that she is focused on the outside world. Rather, the figure seems to exist in a space between the exterior world outside her and the interior world inside her own being. Perhaps she is mesmerised by the morning sun. She is both transfixed on an unseen light source and so deeply lost in her thoughts that nothing in the world could disturb her. This ambivalence is central to Hopper’s work. The alienated individual is partly present, partly absent, simultaneously deeply introspective and yet not free from the toxic environment they live in. How to be free of that exterior force when the light penetrates everything, the most personal spaces, and even the boundaries of the flesh of the individual? What hope do humans have in such antagonistic surroundings?
And yet, as I stand up from my desk in my darkened room and step to the window and feel the sunlight on my face, I feel my alienation ebbing away. TM/DPFC