20TH CENTURY ART
SCRIPT – EARLY SUNDAY MORNING
FADE UP EMPTY STREET AMBIENCE… LOW HUM OF DISTANT TRAFFIC
The year is 1930. The artist Edward Hopper is up very early on a Sunday morning, walking the streets of his neighborhood in Greenwich Village, New York City.
A FEW BIRDS…A MAN’S FOOTSTEPS ON CONCRETE….SLOW, STEADY
He walks alone…at this early hour the streets are empty of people… and that’s just the way he likes it. Hopper’s often drawn to painting scenes of American life like this empty street…or half-empty theaters, or railroad tracks, gas stations, or the windswept lighthouses of Cape Cod where he spends his summers.
AMBIENCE AND FOOTSTEPS CONTINUE…DISTANT BARKING DOG…
Hopper is an intensely private man, and that shows in his paintings. They’re realistic, but spare, often empty of people and nature. To some people they’re filled with loneliness. To others, they reflect Hopper’s deep interest in being alone with his thoughts and feelings.
SINGLE ‘30S ERA CAR GOES BY…
On this particular Sunday morning, Hopper’s walk takes him along Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. He looks across the Avenue and his attention is drawn by a row of two-story buildings. They become the subject of his painting Early Sunday Morning.
The buildings are in New York City, but Hopper leaves out details like street signs. So it could be any Main Street, in any small town in the United States, during the middle decades of the twentieth century.
ALL SOUNDS OUT
And now here’s a detailed verbal description of Early Sunday Morning. It’s a horizontal oil painting on canvas. It’s 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide, so it’s twice as wide as it is tall. It shows a block of three attached buildings, all two stories tall, with shops on the street level and apartments above them. The buildings extend horizontally across the painting from the left edge to the right edge. You see them as if you’re standing across the street from them.
Above all the buildings is a strip of blue sky, darker blue on the left, becoming lighter and tinged with yellow toward the right side of the painting. Below the buildings is a sidewalk, a curb, and a thin slice of the street. The sidewalk, curb, and street also run from one edge of the painting to the other.
The painting has two features that strike you right away. First, there’s nothing living or natural in it. No people, pets, birds, flowers or trees…though there are hints of human activity in the apartment windows above the stores. And second, the sunlight in the painting is strong, almost harsh. Hopper often used unusual lighting to help capture the mood of his scenes. I’ll talk more about both of these features in a minute.
About a third of the way in from the left there’s a fire hydrant on the sidewalk. And slightly right of center on the sidewalk there’s a barber’s pole with red, white, and blue diagonal stripes. Except for the barber’s pole, there’s no way to know the business of the stores. The storefront windows have lettering on them, but you can’t make out the words.
The storefronts on the left and in the center are painted green and have rolled up awnings above their windows. The store on the right is painted red.
The second floor above all the stores is painted deep brick red. There are ten apartment windows, all the same size, stretching across the stores below. Some windows are open, some have yellow shades pulled down to differing lengths. Some windows have dark window coverings. A few have white curtains. Each is slightly different, hinting at a life being lived beyond our view. In this small detail, Hopper makes us acutely aware that people are missing from the picture.
The sunlight on the buildings is very bright, and it’s shining into to the painting from the right. You can tell by the shadows. Both the barber’s pole and the fire hydrant cast long, dark shadows to the left, as they block the sunlight coming from the right. The length of these shadows shows that the sun is still rising and low on the horizon. It’s the sunlight and the absence of people that suggest the time is early morning and that the day of the week is Sunday, when few people are outside working or shopping.
Now here are details about how Hopper designed his painting to help him communicate a strong feeling that all is not well in this simple street scene.
At first glance, the painting’s composition seems highly balanced and symmetrical, with a regular pattern of buildings and windows. But a closer look shows that the painting is filled with asymmetrical elements. For example, the shades in the second-story windows. They’re different colors. And every shade is open to a different length.
Also the window on the extreme right and the store below it are cut off at the edge of the painting. We assume the buildings continue on past the edge of the frame. But this kind of framing makes the painting feel a bit asymmetrical and makes us a bit uneasy. At first we don’t notice these asymmetries because we are used to seeing photographs and movies with similar compositions. And in fact, Hopper had a keen interest in the movies and it shows in how he composed his paintings and how he used light in his paintings.
A final bit of asymmetry is at the upper right corner of the canvas and when you notice it the uneasy feeling grows. Above the last building, a small black rectangle raises…possibly the edge of a skyscraper behind the small row of buildings. It doesn't catch your eye at first, but once you notice it, the idea of a tall building changes the whole picture. A threat overshadows the otherwise quiet street. There’s a sense that something is about to eradicate America’s small-town way of life in 1930. Something’s about to be lost in the commerce and technology of the modern age.