A couple, a brownstone stoop, and an “unspoken question” in a 1956 Hopper painting

When I think of Edward Hopper, his etchings, prints, and paintings from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s come to mind—mostly images of the modern metropolis and the isolation fostered by the urban network of bridges, elevated trains, and concrete office buildings.

But Hopper continued to paint through the postwar decades, up until his death at age 84 in 1967 inside his longtime studio on Washington Square North.

“Sunlight on Brownstones” is one of these later works. Completed in 1956, it shows a young couple at the entrance of a brownstone, likely their own. The sterile brownstone row looks very detached from a dark green Central Park, presumably, across the street. The couple also seems disconnected and disengaged, like they were dropped accidentally into a landscape painting.

What are they looking at? The painting is part of the collection at the Wichita Art Museum, and I’ll let the caption on the website offer an explanation.

“The couple on the stoop appear to gaze upon something beyond the painting’s right edge, beg­ging the question of their interest,” the museum website states. “The answer appears to lie outside the paintings frame, both lit­eral and temporal. Like a movie still, Sunlight on Brownstones seems to have been removed from a larger narrative.”

The caption ends by suggesting that this couple, in their stillness and solitude, “seem to look expectantly toward the sun, as if searching for an answer to an unspoken question.”

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19 Responses to “A couple, a brownstone stoop, and an “unspoken question” in a 1956 Hopper painting”

  1. boxwoodbooks Says:

    I think it’s an aspirational dreamscape.

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Perhaps they see the city of what it will become, overly expensive, out of reach or grasp from most of them.

  3. juliethardwicke Says:

    Hello, I wasn’t familiar with this painting by Hopper, and it’s beautiful. But can it really be Central Park pictured over the road? With an elevated, tree-covered area like th

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It doesn’t look like the Central Park we know, but the Whitney described the park in the painting as “derived” from Central Park…whatever that means.

  4. Greg Says:

    I was not impressed at first glance, but taking a closer look at the couple they really capture a vibe. They feel so knowable.

    The larger scene, by contrast, feels very unreal. Unlike most of the other NYC streetscapes I’ve seen. You just don’t see brownstones right on the park but not facing the park.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It definitely feels unreal. But I had the same initial reaction you did: I saw it at the Hopper show at the Whitney, and I kept coming back to it with curiosity and wonder. I wouldn’t say it grew on me—more that it began revealing its layers. This is the genius of Hopper, in my opinion.

  5. Michael Says:

    I think they were waiting for some friends to come over for dinner. The link you provided for Edward Hopper’s studio leads to a paywall.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Sorry about the paywall. It’s a link to Hopper’s 1967 obituary from the NYTimes, stating that he died in his studio.

  6. Richard Kenyon Says:

    If it were a photo instead an oil, it would be easier to determine if the sun was from the east, in which case, the building would be on the west side of the park, conversely,if the sun was westerly, the building would be on the east side

  7. Goldberg Says:

    Positing a world beyond a painting’s frame is often risky and usually presumptuous.

  8. Ty Says:

    The pale empty light is unnatural for Manhattan. The tidy people-free landscape even more unnatural. The couple disconnected gaze blankly into the distance. Probably don’t say much to each other when they go back inside.

    New York reflects whatever you feel. It’s big enough and complex enough to allow that. Hopper through his brush reveals his deep alienation and loneliness using the city as his mirror.

    • Ty Says:

      Tom Wolfe got the color right “This horrible rat-grey city was suddenly touching, warm!” about the ticker-tape for John Glenn in 1962.

  9. velovixen Says:

    Ty–Your comments are very interesting. In some weird way, the painting makes me think of Romantic poets like Blake and Shelley who, in expressing their longing for a countryside that was being gobbled up by the Industrial Revolution, were also voicing their anxiety and alienation about a world that was coming, but whose outlines weren’t yet clear. You don’t read them to find out the precise locations of barns or meadows; you absorb a sense of what they meant to people into whose memories they are disappearing. I get something of that sense from the painting. Is the city they envisioned–or wherever they came from–becoming as unreal, but as vivid in memory?

    If you came to NY from someplace else, what city did you see the first time you looked out your window (assuming, of course, you had one)? Did you envision a city of the future?

  10. jslaff Says:

    Looks very much like the brownstone stoop scene in Company.

  11. J Says:

    See https://www.google.com/maps/place/Central+Park+West+%26+W+104th+St,+New+York,+NY+10025/@40.7967058,-73.9610267,3a,75y,28.76h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sHaofFm5mKBDvQzapsLeYbQ!2e0!4m6!3m5!1s0x89c2f6222201337b:0x9b1decefb44aa8d6!8m2!3d40.7967545!4d-73.9609914!16s%2Fg%2F11hb9txkcd?hl=en-US&gl=US
    Rotate view into park. See rocks?
    Was there. Brownstone here in the 1950s? Or did Hopper invent one for the landscape?

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