In many of Edward Hopper’s paintings it is as if a curtain has gone up at the opening of a play. The scene is heavy with a certain tense silence, which in a play would be explained and perhaps resolved, but in a painting is destined to remain a mystery, like a parable, inviting interpretation.
The setting, so the title tells us, is an automat. Historically the word named a vending machine, or, as here, a restaurant or cafe in which food was obtained from such machines. Chains of automats flourished in the first half of the twentieth century and were especially popular in New York where Hopper worked. In the picture a well-dressed and attractive young woman sits alone at a table in such an establishment, dressed against the cold with fur trimmed coat and gloves. A glove remains on her hand, as if she feels chilled even indoors. She has eaten whatever modest item of food was on the small plate before her and finishes her drink which, with that radiator by the door, provides some comfort from the cold.
Reflections of the somewhat harsh restaurant lights are prominent above her head. Below them she is lost in her own inward reflections. Her unhappy demeanour suggests that her reflections take her nowhere very far, just as those above her lead only to the utter darkness outside, which ominously reveals no hint of light or life beyond her confines. Mysteriously, while she reflects, she is not herself reflected—the pane of glass which registers the lights does not register her. It is as if she is, to all intents and purposes, invisible.
A colourful bowl sits rather incongruously in the cafe window behind her. Richly symbolic, fruit may suggest temptation, or in the rather desolate automat where one must serve oneself, it may point out temptation’s utter absence. In Christ’s parable, fruit is what is born of seed which falls in good soil, and since the seed is the word, where there is no fruit, the word itself has failed and there is, presumably, only silence. In Hopper’s picture silence is overwhelmingly present.