You will find this painting (Gas, 1940, oil on canvass, 26” x 40”) by Edward Hopper in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. What you see here is a photograph of the original taken with a digital camera. Of the many paintings and other images that I have seen in the US, this one seems to catch the essence of the country with rare insight.
There is only one man in the wide open space … A vast country where very few people live. (The cities are exceptions.) Another implicit message is Americans’ love for cars and roads. This country has a fantastic network of highways and every individual, from 16 to 86, drives. A person under 21 cannot buy alcohol here, but one is eligible for a driving license at the age of 16.
The contrast between natural and artificial lights adds an element of drama to the picture. But as I looked at the painting for a long moment, what overwhelmed me was the loneliness of the filling station attendant. The partly hidden and apparently unimportant character is a typical American elderly man: lonely and unsupported, he has to fend for himself. Many in the US cannot afford to retire even when they are 70, because the cost of living, particularly the cost of medical care, is prohibitive. And adult offspring almost never live with their parents.
Consequently, many people go through a long and forlorn evening in their lives. You will often find these men on the roads of New York, talking to themselves. You will find them sitting at railway station food courts with an empty coffee cup in front, reading an old newspaper, solving a crossword puzzle, or busily noting down nothing on a jotting pad.
The man in the picture must be tired and listless after a long day. Perhaps no one is waiting for him at home. A few hours later, when night descends, if he is still alone, he might recall this Bob Dylan song:
Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there ain't no place I'm going to.
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was a prominent American realist painter who is famous for his personal vision of modern American life. He brought out the stark realities of human suffering during the great depression like no one else has possibly done. Like all great painters and writers, what he leaves unsaid is more important than what he says explicitly.