The haunting emptiness of “The Circle Theater”

There’s inertia and emptiness among the storefronts, candy signage, and subway kiosk entrance in Edward Hopper’s 1936 street scene The Circle Theater.


While the details have the realism of photography, “even here Hopper is defamiliarizing his subjects. The drug store, brightly lit up from within, is in a dark street and lights only a portion of it,” notes critic Rolf Gunter Renner, in his book Edward Hopper, 1882-1967.

“The window points up the emptiness of this system of signs: there is no one to read the message. In [the painting], a human figure, small and lost, is almost completely swallowed up by the colour contrasts of the buildings.”

Should we assume this is one of Hopper’s famous composite-like paintings, where he adds and subtracts bits and pieces of geography and architecture to create one scene—or was there really a Circle Theater next to a sad-looking drug store behind an old-school subway entrance somewhere in the Depression-era city?

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5 Responses to “The haunting emptiness of “The Circle Theater””

  1. Gary Vellenzer Says:

    The geography looks like Astor Place and Lafayette and Bowery. The present subway entrance is a restoration, but looks exactly like this one. Maybe the theater was a predecessor of the recently demolished NYU classroom building that preceded 51 Astor Place..

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I thought about Astor Place too. Something about “Circle Theater” made me think of Columbus Circle, and as it turns out, an old subway entrance used to be there too:

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I would guess its based on this:

    The linked picture must be before the 2nd story was added on – if you squint a little the white portion of the building in Hopper’s painting looks a lot like the original facade in the picture.

  4. Pontifikate Says:

    Could it be the Circle in the Square (Sheridan Square) theatre? From my memory it looks like it might have been.

  5. Force Tube Avenue Says:


    I think it’s the Loews Circle theater in Columbus Circle, now demolished. According to cinema treasures, it was a vaudeville house later converted to a movie theater.

    Below are two links, the first to cinema treasures, with a photo of the vaudeville theater, and then a flickr link, with a photo of the theater, from a different angle, but you can also see the old subway kiosk.


    Columbus Circle Looking South c. 1921

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