Gas is not one of Edward Hopper's better known works. It lacks the fluorescent terror of Nighthawks, the awkward silences of Summer Evening, or the dirty, used feeling that permeates New York Movie. Upon first glance, in fact, it seems like a little slice of Americana that Hopper is best known for; focused, attentive gas man, servicing the pumps which keep your car filled with gas and living the dream. It lacks even the brooding darkness that marks his other representations of buildings, instead offering a bright, incandescent gas station beckoning customers in for fuel and treats before the long drive to wherever.
But this is Edward Hopper we're talking about, the brooding, melancholy, chronically-depressed 6' 7" American Realist whose ennui at the world positively drips out of every canvas he completed. Were he alive today, he would paint nothing but grim strip malls and McDonald's; but then, he was limited to painting ominous shadows over brownstone apartments, and lovely Maine scenery, fouled by a line of telephone poles. He watched the transition of America from bucolic and rural to modernized and electric, and hated it; so many of his paintings show lonely, organic subjects hopelessly alienated from the material progress they find themselves surrounded in. Norman Rockwell would paint the smiling Texaco man in his adorable cap, leave the background blank (to be filled with your all-American aspirations and dreams) and be done with it, having concluded that Gas = good. But Edward Hopper would not be so oblique and obvious. No. There must be something more.
A Closer Look
Let's look at this thing a little closer. There is a gas man in the foreground, servicing a pump. But is he smiling?
Does he have any customers?
Does he, by all accounts, have any reason for getting up in the morning and dressing in his Sunday best other than servicing these towers of steel and glass?
Um, No. I guess not.
Is he dressing in his best solely for the benefit of unfeeling monoliths of petroleum?
I get the point, vonCube. Move on.
Alright. But let's establish the foreground here. We have an unsmiling, mechanical gasman servicing a pump which no-one may have used in hours, if not days. This gas station, which is clearly on a dirt, unimproved road (this was painted in 1940, years before the Interstate paved highway system came into effect), is glowing bright with incandescent goodness, a last beacon of hope and light before the dark, enveloping, coniferous forest which looms, ever-present, in the background. The closer to the road the trees are, the darker they are painted, until the road itself disappears into inky blackness. But wait, look at the sky! Sunset is coming. Soon that darkness which already devoured the forest will be upon the gas station, which with its brightly lit outpost of civilization will keep the light of progress and AMERICA! FUCK YEAH! alive.
Are you sure about that, vonCube? This is Edward Hopper we're talking about, here.
No, I'm not sure of that at all. And in some ways, that's the point. You can read this painting in two entirely different ways, depending on your mental starting point. You can see this as celebrating American progress, a bright outpost of civilization lighting up, and providing fuel and shelter for travellers no matter how desolate the terrain or rough the forest is. If you wanted to, you could see this as a triumph of progress, bringing light to the darkness, advancement to savagery, a warm friendly light of kindness before the black wild forest. Something Norman Rockwell might ruin his pants over.
Or, this is a clever inversion of contemporary values. In this reading, the forest, our home, and source of so much of what builds our civilization, is rendered evil and remote, by placing it darkly in the background, only as an obstacle to be overcome, a threatening presence to be conquered. He's used this forest-as-darkness motif before, in Cape Cod Evening. Never fear though, intrepid Pioneer. Inroads into the wild savagery have been made, benefitting mankind tremendously. This lonely outpost of gas, and treats, manned by a single being in service to machines, and machines only, is the new Paradise on the hill, a last teat of convenience to be weaned off of before embarking into the unknown. Here, the full disconnect between humans and their roots is laid bare for all to see; the nourishing forest is now the evil presence, to be conquered and overcome by all means, one incandescent lightbulb at a time.
Ok, that's a little extreme. Could it be allegory?
Yes, yes it could. Edward Hopper famously battled depression his whole life, and this could be just a simple depiction of it. Sunny brightness, servicing your day; but always looming behind it, depression, melancholy and loneliness. This is why I like it so much, as I feel a real connection with it.
So it could mean any of these things?
All, maybe. Or none. This is where the peculiar genius of Edward Hopper lies; he lays out his landscapes and portraits, stark as could be. A snapshot of time. But he lets you supply the stories. And depending on who you are, or how you feel, that story could be entirely different; he's just the messenger, after all. Take Nighthawks - what is that lonely man up to? Is he going to kill the couple? Is the barkeep in on it? Is the couple as flippant as they seem? Anything could happen with the characters in that canvas. But somehow, you always get the feeling it's going to be bad.
Is that gas attendant going to die?
Yes. By Bears.
You can't see the big brown bear lurking in the background?
Wow. *sighs* Your loss then.