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The Automat

We’re hopping across time and space from last week’s Renaissance Italy to 20th century America for this week’s art post.

You’re looking at Automat by Edward Hopper… Yes, we intended that terrible pun of ‘hopping.’ He did a lot of paintings about urban life, almost always portraying city life as lonely.

There are several things we like about this scene: the reflection of the lights in the window and the chair’s back in the foreground, especially. Together they make you feel like you’re in the room with her. We also like little details like her wearing only one glove and that she’s staring into that coffee cup so intently. Hopper used his wife Josephine as his model, though I read once that he shrunk her cup size by quite a bit. Why? Good question. Personally, we’d love to know what Jo thought of that.

But the broader subject of the painting is what affects us right now. Automats were self-serve restaurants popular in NYC from about WWI up to the 1950s. Customers came in and exchanged dollars for nickels then bought their meals and drinks from vending machines. Those machines were stocked from behind by a team of cooks and servers who were never seen by the customers. Think of how food got from the kitchen to the dining hall at Hogwarts—minus the house elves—if you’re a Harry Potter fan. Impersonal but cheap, automats were billed as restaurants of the future.

That resonates with us now because of how we get our restaurant food under this lockdown mess. To our surprise, it turns out that we didn’t go to restaurants just for the food. Apparently we liked the social ambiance of being in a public place figuratively sharing a meal with others. We can admit now that we enjoyed the people watching, too. We're doing our best to support local restaurants by buying take out through the lockdown but we miss eating out the social way. Seeing her alone in her 1920s automat made us think of our 2020s version of isolation. Let’s hope this is NOT the way of the future.

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