Automat, 1927 by Edward Hopper
The painting portrays a lone woman staring into a cup of coffee in an Automat at night. The reflection of identical rows of light fixtures stretches out through the night-blackened window.
Hopper's wife, Jo, served as the model for the woman. However, Hopper altered her face to make her younger (Jo was 44 in 1927). He also altered her figure; Jo was a curvy, full-figured woman, while one critic has described the woman in the painting as "'boyish' (that is, flat-chested)".
As is often the case in Hopper's paintings, both the woman's circumstances and her mood are ambiguous. She is well-dressed and is wearing makeup, which could indicate either that she is on her way to or from work at a job where personal appearance is important, or that she is on her way to or from a social occasion.
She has removed only one glove, which may indicate either that she is distracted, that she is in a hurry and can stop only for a moment, or simply that she has just come in from outside, and has not yet warmed up. But the latter
possibility seems unlikely, for there is a small empty plate on the table, in front of her cup and saucer, suggesting that she may have eaten a snack and been sitting at this spot for some time.
The time of year—late autumn or winter—is evident from the fact that the woman is warmly dressed. But the time of day is unclear, since days are short at this time of year. It is possible, for example, that it is just after sunset, and early enough in the evening that the automat could be the spot at which she has arranged to rendezvous with a friend. Or it could be late at night, after the woman has completed a shift at work. Or again, it could be early in the morning, before sunrise, as a shift is about to start.
Whatever the hour, the restaurant appears to be largely empty and there are no signs of activity (or of any life at all) on the street outside. This adds to the sense of loneliness, and has caused the painting to be popularly associated with the concept of urban alienation. One critic has observed that, in a pose typical of Hopper's melancholic subjects, "the woman's eyes are downcast and her thoughts turned inward." Another critic has described her as "gazing at her coffee cup as if it were the last thing in the world she could hold on to." In 1995, Time magazine used Automat as the cover image for a story about stress and depression in the 20th century.
The presence of a chairback in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas suggests that the viewer is sitting at a nearby table, from which vantage-point a stranger might be able to glance, uninvited, upon the woman.
In an innovative twist, Hopper made the woman’s legs the brightest spot in the painting, thereby "turning her into an object of desire" and "making the viewer a voyeur." By today’s standards this description seems overstated, but in 1927 the public display of women’s legs was still a relatively novel phenomenon.
Hopper would make the crossed legs of a female subject the brightest spot on an otherwise dark canvas in a number of later paintings, including Compartment C, Car 293 (1938) and Hotel Lobby (1943). The female subject of his 1931 painting Barber Shop is also in a pose similar to the woman in Automat, and the viewer's image of her is similarly bisected by a table. But the placing of the subject in a bright, populated place, at midday, makes the woman less isolated and vulnerable, and hence the viewer's gaze seems less intrusive.
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