32 DC Sociology

I found Hopper's First Row Orchestra in a deserted gallery within the Hirshhorn Museum. In the painting, four theatergoers huddle at the far end of the front row's plush seats. Hopper and Jo usually purchased balcony tickets to save money, but a visiting friend bought them main-floor seats shortly before Hopper painted this canvas. For lifelong spendthrift Hopper, this experience made a big enough impression to serve as a subject for an oil painting. First Row Orchestra doesn't seem as dark in mood as other Hopper paintings, but doesn't seem as compelling either.

The Hirshhorn also owned a 1951 Hopper oil called City Sunlight. It shows a woman seated at a round oak table and resting an arm on a windowsill as she stares out into Hopper's beloved sunlight. Most consider this one of Hopper's lesser works, and it is almost never displayed.

However, a couple of Hopper's better paintings are displayed a couple of galleries over from First Row Orchestra. InEleven A.M., a woman on the edge of her overstuffed chair stares at the city outside her window. She is naked except for her pointy red shoes, which glow supernaturally atop the lime green carpet. Her auburn hair eclipses her face except for the nose. The painting, suggestively erotic, originally showed at a Valentine's Day opening 1927 in Rehn's gallery.

Hanging by its side was Hopper's Hotel by a Railroad. In it, an older woman sits reading in her pink satiny slip, her gray hair limp. An erudite man in a vest, delicately holding his cigarette far from his face, stares out the room's unusually large window overlooking railroad tracks onto which he might easily throw himself. The two are alone in separate thoughts, as isolated as the woman in Eleven A.M., if not more isolated by virtue of being alone together.

Seeing as I was in the same room with another person, a beefy man, gentle and bearded, I asked him if he liked the painting.

"I like Edward Hopper, yah," he said.

He said he was in town for a conference. "I am an American, but I moved to Canada in 1970 and have lived there ever since. I'm a Sociology professor at a university in Toronto."

(Note to self: When writing a book about the sociological implications of Edward Hopper's paintings, ask a sociologist.)

"He's a highly sociological painter," he continued. "One of the things that attracts me to him is that depiction of obviously lonely people. American individualism is what it is. The isolationism of the 1950s and the Cold War. Nobody looks at one another. In First Row Orchestra, they're sitting close together but she's reading a program, he's looking somewhere else, and the man in back is not looking at anyone."

"Would a Canadian paint this isolation?"

"Well, famous Canadian artists are famous because they live in New York. If you mean, 'Are Canadians more collectively oriented?' The answer is yes. My wife and I come back frequently, and the country that I come back to is not the country that I left," he lamented. "I hadn't seen these particular paintings before, but I saw them from around the corner and knew they must be Edward Hoppers. I like all of his. It's high bourgeois taste," he snickered and extended a puffy paw for me to shake goodbye. "Good luck with your sociology study. Nothingness is really quite interesting, but, you know, not everything's a statement."

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