We know from Gail Levin’s biography of the painter that Hopper originally sketched in steps outside the door, but eliminated them and made the sea the horizon. The biographer writes: “Edward wrote to Frank Rehn: `I have finished a canvas am hoping to get another before we leave here.’ At the bottom of the letter, Jo [Hopper’s wife] added a note: `A queer one—could be called the Jumping Off Place—we can’t count on that one ever being sold…’” Jo Hopper seems to be hinting at the scene as a veiled invitation to suicide. Anna Lewis pulls the focus back a notch to observe an observer of the painting in “On Seeing Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea”:
“Between inside and out, a cool, gray wall.
A polygon of light through open door.
A settee, red. A carpet, green. The hall,
a yellow passage not to sandy shore
but hard to some blue sea, below. That’s all.
No action here. Just color, shape, and light.
No saints in gold-leaf haloes to adore.
But, as you almost pass it, left to right,
I see you pause before its either/or:
the calm suspension, here, right now, of white
as light through cool, gray rooms conducts its fall;
or, there, beyond, a square of blue, the sight
of lustrous sky and ocean. Still, you stall.
You stand before the brink, its unseen height.”
Her line precisely describes my understanding of the painting: “I see you pause before its either/or” – order/chaos, security/jeopardy, life/death. In a very different spirit, G.K. Chesterton might be describing Rooms by the Sea and other Hopper canvases in his essay “The Artistic Sense” (The Coloured Lands, 1938). He’s riding on a train that passes through a tunnel and emerges to the sight of houses along the track:
“Sometimes the grey facade is broken by the lighted windows of a house, almost overhanging the railway-line; and for an instant we look deep into a domestic interior; chamber within chamber of a glowing and coloured human home. That is the way in which objects ought to be seen; separate; illuminated; and above all, contrasted against blank night or bare walls; as indeed these living creations do stand eternally contrasted with the colourless chaos out of which they came.”