Self-isolation can bring unwelcome feelings of loneliness and frustration and, whilst lockdown is a situation unique to our era, the familiar emotions it has invoked have been captured by artists across the centuries.
In Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’, solitude and isolation are depicted as a kind of victory. The walker dominates the landscape and he has his back to us, so we can see the view too; his solitude and his embrace of the sublime is something that we’re paradoxically invited to share through the work of art. Edmund Burke wrote on the subject of the sublime: ‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.’
Friedrich’s Romantic paintings are a balm for those of us enduring lockdown away from the vastness of these kinds of landscapes; our enclosed, claustrophobic solitude is very different to that of the mountaineer. The scene in the painting is purportedly based on a combination of elements in Saxony and Bohemia, from the Elbe Sandstone Mountains.
Caspar David Friedrich used the River Elbe for another painting. ‘Woman at the Window’ shows a single figure from behind once more, allowing us to see a little of what she can see – the top of a ship’s sail, and faint poplar trees in the distance. The rest is up to our imagination. She is wistfully looking out of the window, leaning slightly to the left, in the opposite direction to the sail’s mast. There is a feeling of longing in the painting, her head tilted slightly to one side. It could be a metaphor for her life: she might always simply watch life pass by, without being able to take part. She could be yearning for more. The interior is dark but not small. Her view – the outside world – is bright and inviting. The window, composed so that its cross lead resembles a Christian cross, represents a view from the domestic world into a different realm.
Friedrich said that introspection is key to an artist’s work, “The artist should not merely paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself.” This is certainly something that Edward Hopper explores repeatedly in his work.
One could draw an easy comparison between Friedrich’s ‘Woman at the Window’ and Edward Hopper’s ‘Room in Brooklyn.’ A woman is sitting in front of a window. She has pulled her chair into the sunlight, as though she knows this is the only way she will be able to enjoy the sun. If she were looking at the view (she appears to be preoccupied with something in her lap) she would see a rooftop. In the room, there is a vase of flowers atop a table. Ivo Kranzfelder states, “Hopper once said he did not particularly like flowers, because they were so self-sufficient in their beauty. A disturbing aspect is introduced into this apparently idyllic scene by the slight tilt to the left of the entire composition.” Compositionally, we are on edge and not at ease.
Hopper’s ‘Eleven a.m.’ also shows a woman alone inside with the sun on her skin but this time she is nude, save for her shoes. We cannot see what holds her stare as it is out of our view. We are distanced from the painting as we are only privy to a part of what is happening: the interest of the painting is hers alone.
Loneliness is the discernible theme of Hopper’s ‘Automat’ (1927) which features a woman staring into a cup of coffee. An automat was a kind of café where straightforward food, such as soup, sandwiches and drinks, were served by a vending machine, so there was no human interaction at all. When this was painted, automats were emerging everywhere in America. So Hopper has captured an isolated scene in a city location. The woman has kept her coat and hat on and one glove, perhaps indicating that she is not intending on staying there long. This, however, jars with her intense downward gaze. The chair opposite her is empty. Is she waiting for someone, or has someone just left?
The ambience and subject are reminiscent of another lonely woman in Degas’ ‘The Absinth Drinker’ from 1875. For this painting, Degas asked friend and engraver Marcellin Desboutin and actress Ellen Andrée to pose (Andrée later posed for Manet’s ‘Plum Brandy.’) For Degas, Andrée played a prostitute, absorbed in thought and staring into her absinthe. The focus is on her solitude and unease. A man is sitting near her, though he seems unaware of her presence.
Gauguin’s ‘Nevermore’ shows a nude woman lying down alone while figures behind her gossip, possibly about her. Post-Impressionists like Gauguin used literary referencing as inspiration for their paintings. The raven in the painting is from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’ which uses the refrain ‘Nevermore’ as a motif: ‘Quoth the Raven “Nevermore”’. In the poem, the raven is the sign of a bad omen, and in the painting, because of its size and flattened appearance, it is not supposed to be a real bird, rather, an ornamental figure. The woman lying on the bed appears to be listening (her eyes are to the side) as though she is straining to know what is being said in the room beyond.
Loneliness, in this instance, is as much about the thought of others together elsewhere, as it is about the actual state of being on one’s own. And therein lies the difference between loneliness and solitude: solitude is a sought-after state whereas loneliness denotes a deep-seated desire for the isolation to end.