Mary E. Martin
Sep 20, 2014 3:43PM

AUTOMAT, by Edward Hopper

Can painting be an inspiration to a novelist? I certainly hope so. 

I have a fascination with the paintings of the American artist, Edward Hopper. Somehow— whether by technique, imagination or subject matter—he is able to create the most compelling and evocative scenes and all of them tell a story. One of my favourites is Automat an oil painted by him in 1927. 

A young woman with a yellow felt hat sits absolutely alone in a barren restaurant drinking a cup of coffee. I look at this and immediately feel her isolation and loneliness as if it were my own. Is she running away? What thoughts are in her mind as she stares into the cup? 

Right away, Hopper has got me speculating. Where did she come from? Where is she going? I’m caught right in the middle of a story which you can “read” backwards or forwards in time or stay right in the present. 

What emotions does Hopper create and how does he do it? Behind the solitary woman is a large window, blackened by an impenetrably gloomy night. The lights or reflections of lights recede into the background giving a murky, tunnel-like effect, leading to nowhere. The radiator, crouching at the left of the painting, seems just as isolated as the girl in the composition, but almost looks more communicative than her. The lonely, solitary moment is caught forever in time. I think of homesickness and fear of the unknown or unknowable. 

Hundreds of stories could grow from this one painting. Will someone, a boyfriend or family member enter that door, hoping to bring her back home? Where is home? If no one comes, where will she go after she drinks her coffee? 

To a dingy hotel room? Onto a train to New York? That would be just like so many other Hopper paintings, which so often depict hotel lobbies, motels and railway cars—just like waiting rooms for people in transition. Or maybe she will change her mind and go back home.

Hopper painted much of his work in the twenties, thirties and forties of the last century, when rapid industrialization and urbanization were forcing people from their old dwellings and old ways of living. Consequently, so many people felt lost and displaced. 

And yet, the emotions evoked by his work are universal, whatever the time and place. Great art transcends time and place and touches a nerve in us all, which communicates those universal emotions and ideas to us. Just like a photograph, Automat, is a permanent moment in time existing in a world which is, at the same time, transient. Maybe that’s how I’m struck by the sense of fleeting moments and permanence all in one.

Mary E. Martin