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Edward Hopper’s enigmatic pharmacy

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Callie Jones (after Edward Hopper)Among the artists whose work I admire is Edward Hopper (1882–1967), many of whose paintings serenely depict mundane aspects of American city life.

One of my favourite Hopper works, considered an early masterpiece, is an eerie nocturnal view of a street corner pharmacy. As with many other Hopper paintings, the image offers no signs of life — no staff or customers visible within the pharmacy, no pedestrians on the pavement, no motor vehicles in the road.

The scene is lit only by a porch light, an unseen street lamp and bright illumination within the pharmacy itself. These lights combine to produce geometric designs on the pavement and to pick out architectural features of the building. With its well-lit interior and colourful window display, the pharmacy seems welcoming, but the dark shadows in the street are menacing.

At the top of the pharmacy’s large window are the words “Prescriptions”, “Drugs” and “Ex-Lax”. When Hopper finished the painting in 1927 he named it “Ex Lax — Drug Store”. But his agent’s wife thought that the reference to a laxative was immodest, and he was persuaded to change the second X to a C and to remove the product name from the work’s title. But shortly afterwards the painting was sold for $1,500 to a Boston collector who encouraged Hopper to restore the product name.

The painting is assumed to represent a drug store in New York, possibly near the artist’s studio in Washington Square. The fascia announces the premises as “184 Silbers Pharmacy 184”, but apparently no one has managed to track down any Silber’s pharmacy in the city or any other pharmacy at corner premises with that street number.

Now known simply as “Drug Store”, Hopper’s painting, which he executed in oils on canvas, can be seen in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, unless it is not away as part of a touring exhibition.

Fifteen years after “Drug Store”, Hopper repeated the nocturnal street corner theme in what has become his most popular painting, “Nighthawks”.

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