This week, “Chop Suey,” a 1929 painting by Edward Hopper, sold for nearly $92 million, a record for the celebrated American artist.
The oil painting depicts two women seated in a Chinese restaurant. The setting is bare, typical of Hopper’s lonely depictions of 20th-century life. The only indication that the restaurant might be Chinese is a single teapot resting on the table and a sign outside the window that reads, “Chop Suey,” a dish created by Cantonese immigrants in America.
Art historians believe Hopper was inspired by two real-life Chinese restaurants that no longer exist. One was the Far East Tea Garden, a massive banquet restaurant in Manhattan that Hopper and his wife Josephine frequented.
The other is the Empire in Portland, Maine, which is still a Chinese restaurant today. Its modern-day interior bears resemblance to the setting of “Chop Suey.”
By the time Hopper painted his piece, Chinese restaurants had become an integral part of American life.
The working class frequented chop suey joints for a cheap lunch, and women, newly empowered by the feminist movement of the early 1900s, were entering the workforce and patronizing Chinese-American establishments as public places to see and be seen.
The restaurants ran the gamut from luxurious and audacious like the Far East Tea Garden, located in the posh Upper West Side of Manhattan, to no-frills diners like the ones that dotted New York’s working-class Chinatown.
Almost all of them advertised themselves with a signboard that read, “Chop Suey.”
The dish itself was created by immigrants from southern China who wanted to recreate a taste of home in late 19th-century America.
A mix of meat, eggs, and vegetables stir-fried in a wok, the dish’s name in Chinese literally means “assorted pieces.”
Eventually, this culinary Frankenstein came to represent Chinese cuisine in the United States, gracing menus, store signs—and iconic 20th-century paintings.
(Read more: The not-so-Chinese origins of General Tso’s chicken)
Hopper’s “Chop Suey” was the most expensive work sold by Christie’s at its auction on Tuesday of the collection of Barney Ebsworth, a prominent American art collector.
The bid price was more than double the previous record for a Hopper piece: $40.5 million for “East Wind Over Weehawken” in 2013.
The sale of “Chop Suey” generated controversy because Ebsworth had initially pledged to donate the piece to the Seattle Art Museum.
Christie’s, however, has not revealed the identity of the buyer, which means it still could end up in the hands of a museum.