Hopper and his Pharmacy

The corner drug store is a staple in the community, carrying the sacred responsibility of accurately sorting and dispensing vital medication to patrons. When times were simple, the pharmacist was the proprietor of the store. Today you can still find drug stores relatively close to home, especially in New York City, but most likely it is one of many franchised pharmacies. Edward Hopper immortalized the corner pharmacy of yesteryear in his 1927 painting elegantly titled “Drug Store.”

In true Hopper style, we are met with the coldness of urban isolation. Humans are social animals. As such, this painting strikes us as eerie. This is a place we do not want to be, but our interests are piqued. We cannot help but stare into this lowly corner of the city. This is the beauty of Hopper’s paintings. Even in a setting as populated as a metropolitan city, Hopper is able to depict the depression of urban isolation. Surrounded by millions of people, we can still feel alone. That is Hopper, and we feel that in “Drug Store.”

This painting is of Silbers’ Pharmacy located in the 100 block of some city or road, specifically the 184th lot. There is speculation that Silbers’ may have existed near Hopper’s Washington Square studio in New York City. However, the exact location, or if this pharmacy ever existed, is unknown.

The scene is set at night. No one is depicted walking the streets, so we can infer it is the late night, early morning hour. There is light coming only from the drug store, perhaps just from the lamp positioned above the corner porch, like a lighthouse guiding ships to a dock. There is a sign hanging across the window: “PRESCRIPTIONS DRUGS EX-LAX.”

Ex-Lax is a common over-the-counter laxative, and has been widely available since 1906. Phenolphthalein was the main active ingredient until senna was substituted in 1997. There is insight into the presence of Ex-Lax in the painting. Sigmund Freud’s works on psychosexual development were produced in the mid-1920′s, leading to the belief that Ex-Lax pins reference to the anal stage of Freud’s theory. Laxatives were, and still are, a lucrative product. Perhaps the pharmacist wanted to advertise that the store carried this good. The timeline lends one to consider the link with Freud.

This painting also has another interesting story. Hopper originally named the painting “Ex-Lax – Drug Store.” However the wife of his agent, Frank Rehn, deemed the reference offensive, opting for the name removed from the title, and changing the second ‘X’ to an ‘S.’ John Spaulding, a banker from Boston, purchased this piece in 1928, and requested the ‘S’ be changed back to an ‘X.’ Hopper agreed.

Also in the pharmacy window are patriotic banners, red and blue triangular flags with white columns. We also see two apothecary bottles: one red, the other green, juxtaposing the symbols of stop and go, respectively. There are also blue rectangles with some hints of burnt sienna. These objects are not clear to discern. They may be boxes unique to the store.

Hopper invites us into the pharmacy with the lighting, but also shuts us out by hiding the door and covering most of the window. We may never learn any more about this hauntingly beautiful drug store. However even at such a late hour, we know Silbers’ was a beacon for those in need of emergency prescriptions. We all remember Silbers’ Pharmacy, a symbol of health and prosperity of the soon to end roaring twenties.

References:
Mathiasen, Helle. “Edward Hopper’s Corner Drug Store.” The American Journal of
         Medicine 122.10 (2009): 969. Print.
Torpy, J. M. “Drug Store.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 
         300.9 (2008): 1000. Print.

P.S. During the Prohibition era, one had to be a licensed pharmacist to own a drug store. Liquor was still believed to hold some medicinal benefits, and was still permitted for use with a prescription. Remind you of any prescribed, medicinal agent today?

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10 comments

  1. I’m never sure if Hopper’s views are lonely or a way of letting us see places without the clutter of humanity. another thoughtful post.

  2. Michael, I love this post. And as a great fan of Hopper, I am chagrined to say that this painting was unknown to me. Thanks for filling this gap!

    I am the ultimate urban kid. I live in a center of Manhattan action, alive night and day. When I go to a place of silence, I can’t sleep! Yet Hopper portrays quietude and I am drawn into his scenes. My most beloved of his works is “Early Sunday Morning”, which is a block on 12th Street, just 2 blocks away from my front door. How I wish I could walk over there and see it as Hopper painted it.

    I love finding your posts deposited in my e-mailbox. Thanks ever so much!

    Elliott (elliottingotham.wordpress.com)

    1. Thanks! I’ll keep up the good work!

  3. Another great post. I love Hopper, but like Elliott, had never seen this work. Great analysis.

    1. Glad you’ve seen the painting! It is quite charming.

  4. Love looking at art through the lens of medicine (and vice versa) – though I think my own bias is towards theater. Your analysis here is awesome.

  5. I too think that looking at art through the medical lens is interesting. Not sure if the articles should be more tightly connected to the art and medicine as was the Picasso one. Certainly Cezanne comes to mind, so Van Gogh. I am anxious to see where you go with this.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I teach History of Pharmacy at ETSU’s Gatton College of Pharmacy and I always try to include a lecture on Pharmacy in the Arts, and have loved this painting. Traditionally, the colors of the apothecary’s show globes are related to the 4 humors, with red = blood and green = phlegm.

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