As in all Hopper paintings, you ask yourself what, exactly, is going on, what story is being told: what's up between this leggy secretary at the file cabinet and her boss studying some correspondence at his desk? What's she thinking? What's he thinking?
Kathryn Shattuck had some interesting questions in a 2006 New York Times piece:
Does it depict a power struggle, a political comedy or the build-up to an office romp? Hopper preferred to leave the narratives to the viewer's imagination, said Carter Foster, the Whitney's curator of drawings.
Or, as Hopper put it, "If you could say it, there'd be no reason to paint."
In "Office at Night" a man in his 30's or 40's sits at a heavy desk in a sparsely furnished room, a voluptuous secretary standing with her hand in a file drawer nearby. Twisted in a provocative if physically strained position — both breasts and buttocks are visible — she could be looking at him. Or maybe she's wondering how her skin-tight dress will allow her to stoop down to pick up the paper dropped on the floor, and if she does, what the outcome will be. A breeze enters an open window and rustles a blind as the man reads a document, apparently oblivious to the situation. Or is he?
Hopper himself said this of the painting: "My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air, with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning to me."
Hopper's paintings have the odd effect, I find, of making you think about what role certain inanimate objects will play in whatever happens next. How long will it be before someone draws the blind? Will he use that big black dorky phone to call home and say he's going to be later than he thought? Or will the phone ring at the wrong time, and will it be his wife? He may not have a wife, though. There are no pictures on his desk, or on his wall. He may have no imaginative life whatsoever; not even a wall calendar. The sylph in the blue skirt may be the most visually alive thing in his world, and he doesn't even notice her.
But maybe he will. There is, of course, that piece of paper on the floor.
More from Shattuck:
At the time, the position of executive secretary was a relatively prestigious role for a woman, though inherently subservient. Still, this woman, with her fashionable attire, her makeup and her come-hither pose, could be the one with the power. Especially, as Mr. Foster and not a few other art historians have noted, if she does go for that paper.
The experts do tend to focus on that paper. The people at something called artsconnected give a little back story:
Hopper and his wife, Josephine, who also served as his model, went through a series of possible titles for the painting, including Room 1005 and Confidentially Yours, before Hopper chose the more ambiguous Office at Night. In spite of Hopper's reluctance to assign it specific narrative content, the painting is full of clues pointing to the complexity of male/female dynamics in the workplace. The piece of paper that has fallen to the floor, a detail added only in late sketches for this work, focuses the drama. How did it get there? Will she stoop to pick it up?
On his website, an art teacher at the State University of New York asks students to focus on it:
I think Hopper by including this detail is begging us to ask the question as to who will pick up the piece of paper? Who do you think will do it and why? Would your answer change if Hopper had placed the man and woman in a different context, for example a garden? Another way of analyzing the relationship between the man and the woman is on the basis of power. All societies depend on the control and structuring of power relationships. Identify the different types of power presented in the painting. Who or what authorizes these types of power?
Nicky Charlish finds the face full of tension: the secretary looks at her boss "with the annoyed expectation of someone who expects an overdue declaration of affection - or who is dying to leave work and get home."
No such mystery for Gordon Thiessen, in his book Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche: "She is turned toward him with tilted head and lidded eyes, intent to seduce."
We have no idea whether she actually gets the guy -- whom, it occurs to me, may be staring at his correspondence so intently because he's trying not to think of the secretary, and of all the possibilities this particular night has in store. He's trying not to think of her because he can't think of anything else.
But she, and the painting, definitely seduce the viewer, even the casual ones who see a reproduction, nearly 70 years later, on a wall calendar.