Zen and the art of Edward Hopper

I am a member of the Seattle Art Museum, an indulgence which gives me steady supplies of joy throughout the year. I go with my friends, and sometimes I go by myself and spend some meditative quality time with the art. So far I’ve seen the most recent exhibition three times, and I expect to go back.

Right now the museum is showing a small exhibit called Edward Hopper’s Women. I love Edward Hopper. I always have, and I have defended his paintings in this space before. Although I acknowledge that they are reflective, I do not see them as portraits of loneliness and despair. It is delightful to study the paintings themselves when I am usually limited to looking at the reproductions. So much can be seen in the texture of the paint, in the scale of the works.

I feel a connection to many of these pieces. One work that stands out is called Compartment C, Car 293. Hopper painted it in 1938, and it is a study of a woman reading in a train car. She is alone, engrossed in her Reader’s Digest. She ignores the scenery and sunset that passes by outside the window. I love this painting, because it says so much more to me than what the artist may have intended. The interior of the train car is green, and at first glance an onlooker may notice perhaps three shades of green. On closer look, especially in the presence of the painting itself, you can see that the picture is more complex than it appears. There may be hundreds of shades of green in that one train car as the light and shadows have their effect on the compartment. The painting urges me to look closer, and having looked, to consider everything else I see more deeply.

That’s one of the reasons I like to draw, too. Drawing requires an almost Zen appreciation of the complexity of things. You must truly see what you are looking at to draw. I’m grateful to the artist for helping me see this train car. I can’t wait to go back and look at it again.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

205. Take ten minutes—more time if you have it—and really look at something. Is an apple simply red, an orange simply orange? Describe or draw the object to show what you’ve discovered.

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