Soir Bleu, alienation in company
Soir Bleu (Blue Night) (fig. 1) is a 1914 oil on canvas painting by Realist American artist Edward Hopper. The work, which is usually visible at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, is currently at Complesso del Vittoriano, Ala Brasini, for a temporary exhibition in Rome. Soir Bleu as well as most Hopper’s painting shows a solitude atmosphere, which is also the main characteristic of Hopper as artist concerned with the sense of loneliness linked to the modern life of American big cities.
Soir Bleu is Hopper’s first ambitious painting that realistically explores a complex world where the modern life and the figure of the artist conciliate only within a disturbed and lonely struggle. The work depicts the anguish of people spending time at a Parisian café, which is the setting typical of Manet’s paintings (fig. 2) that inspired Hopper greatly. The characters of Soir Bleu seem to be disconnected from one the other and incapable of communicating, like the characters in Touluse-Loutrec’s paintings (fig. 3), which are another important source of inspiration for Hopper’s art.
As if they were posing in front of the viewer, Soir Bleu characters are grouped in three: the pimp, the performers, and the wealthy couple. The pimp, smoking a cigarette and, supposedly, waiting for something to eat or drink, looks calm but perhaps not fully satisfied of his life. His gaze is empty and his folded arms show a will to look confident. Next to the pimp, Hopper depicts an artist. His figure, “identifiable by his beret, is significantly split in half-half in the world of the pimp, half in that of the performers-over-lapping the sensually charged vertical of the standing prostitute or chorus girl and facing his alter ego, the isolated clown” (Nochlin). The artist, smoking like the pimp, cannot achieve an engagement with the viewers for his being divided into two. On the other hand, the performers (prostitute/chorus girl and clown) in the center, are fully shown and able to fill the painting up with melancholy. The prostitute/chorus girl, an eye-catching woman with an exaggerated make-up, is the only standing figure in the painting and the only one who seems to be aware of the viewer’s presence. She looks like she just stopped as she came into the scene and noticed the viewer’s apparition outside the painting: she is the only one who looks willing to communicate and, at the same time, knows she cannot.
In front of the chorus girl, we see a man from behind, sitting next to the artist. He wears elegant clothes, which tell us he is either the director or the tamer of the circus. We have, as spectators, no chance to communicate with him, because not only do we see him from behind, but also he is sitting in the shadow. In front of the tamer, the clown, hidden by his make-up similar to the chorus girl’s, is sitting, smoking a cigarette, looking down towards the table, and creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that involves the viewer too. The clown, the only one in white clothes and fully enlightened, draws the attention to his figure also thanks to the isolated position he has in the scene: not only is he in the center, but he also has free space both at his left and right. By placing the clown in this position, Hopper clearly puts emphasis on his figure and on what he might represent.
The whole scenario is, indeed, the mirror of a modern reality where silence and din lay on the same page of a solitude made up with crowded spaces, such as the cafe, the quintessential environment of the modern life. Do we need to identify with the clown, whose stage dress oozes a solitude feeling, or do we have to sympathize with the artist, whose identity is struggling between a world of money (the pimp’s) and a world of fiction (the performers’)? Hopper merely depicts the real as it is, without taking the side of any character nor giving the viewer a hint to identify with one figure or the other, because the meaning itself of the painting is the feeling it provokes. “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint” (Hopper).
The tension of the scene achieves its peak in the left side of the painting, where the wealthy bourgeois couple, sitting elegantly, seems to be struck by the preponderant presence of the prostitute/chorus girl. Both the lady we see from the back and the gentleman in front of her seem to be gazing at the standing woman almost indignantly. The couple clearly belongs to the upper class that is not meant to feel or understand neither the pimp nor the performers. The couple, however, is not given focus or much room in the scene, as if Hopper does not want to give importance to the higher social class in the painting; he rather seems to claim the peculiarity and more interesting nature of the ordinary heroes, the performers, the people who fictionalize and make fun of life in order to survive.
The performers are the protagonists of the painting. They occupy the center, and the greatest part of the scene, and provide the scenario with the mood, that predominantly melancholic feeling which, therefore, takes on the whole painting.
As well as many Hopper’s works, Soir Bleu is a memory of the Parisian nights he used to enjoy during his European journeys, which, unavoidably, influenced his mindset and way of painting. While the painting technique seems to be influenced by French Post-Impressionism, the setting and subject matter of the painting reminds of Henry de Touluse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge (fig. 4). Soir Bleu’s characters are alienated as much as At The Moulin Rouge’s: they are both supposed to have fun drinking, eating, and hanging out at urban recreation night places, but in fact they are completely isolated. Even though the space between the people is limited, they are not communicating, not looking into the other’s eyes. Each of them looks completely absorbed in their own world, which, in fact, gives each of them the same sad, alienated, and even nostalgic look.
Both in terms of mood and subject matter, Soir Bleu reminds of Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe (fig. 5) too, with all its motionless and depressing atmosphere able to discomfort the viewer as well. Hopper’s work also combines both French and American ways, in such a smartly composed scene where lines, shapes, and colors are shrewdly put together. If the subject matter is taken from Manet, Degas, and Touluse-Loutrec, what Hopper encapsulates within Soir Bleu carries a profound American sense of isolation and even abstraction from reality. The power of the painting is its evocative feature, its capability of showing an everyday-life scene and making it convincing, real in its being just a representation.
While the characters of Soir Bleu may be French, their feelings are definitely American: they do not interact with one another, they have a strong sense of alienation as Americans merely being contemporary people with no roots or deep culture, they are human with no human sensations but loneliness. The static composition of the painting contributes in creating a stillness sense of wait for something to happen, for the future to come, for the melancholic present to pass. The cold light and colors provide the painting with a strange and almost oneiric veil that grabs the viewer’s attention through the characters’ gazes, which are all empty, lost, in trans. Even the style brings up a whole discourse about abstraction, as in fact, both the objects and the characters are extremely stylized. Colors are flat, and have no shades. The contrast between light and shadow is emphasized by the lack of chiaroscuro. The symmetry and clever composition of the painting clash the “naïve” way the figures are portrayed. The stylistic abstraction gets along with the meaning and message of the work itself; the alienation of the characters reaches its apotheosis precisely thanks to the way Hopper simplistically paints.
The complexity of Soir Bleu shows how Hopper was able to combine the European artistic influence with the American alienation, creating a sense of nostalgia for a past that does not exist, and a future that will come late. All the Americans, the pimp, the artist, the clown, the prostitute, the tamer, and the bourgeoisie are melancholically still waiting while smoking and wasting time at cold cafés.
Nochlin, Linda. “Edward Hopper and the Imagery of Alienation”. Art Journal. 41, 2. 1981.
Fig. 1. Soir Bleu, Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1914. Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, currently Vittoriano, Rome.
Fig. 2. A bar at the Folies-Bergere. Edourad Manet, oil on canvas, 1882. Courtland Gallery, London.
Fig. 3. The Dance. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, oil on canvas, 1890. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Fig. 4. At the Moulin Rouge. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, oil on canvas, 1892. Art Institute of Chicago
Fig. 5. L’Absinthe. Edgar Degas, oil on canvas, 1875. Museé d’Orsay, Paris.