A man and a woman sit at separate tables and are the only ones in that part of the cafeteria. The scene is a bright daylight. The street along the cafeteria is lonely and deserted at this time of the day.
Hopper in his genius way of expression through paintings is able to capture the tension between the two strangers. The way she looks at her hands is like she expects him to make the first move.
He instead obfuscates his emotions by looking outside. There is a looming loneliness in each of them. By the fact that they are alone in a corner with only an aisle separating them. The gentleman's left hand seems to move like he is about to wave but in a hesitant way. The lady is just fidgeting her fingers with her cup set aside in a manner suggesting she is done with it. it's like she is indirectly inviting a conversation.
There is an inverse effect as compared to Hopper's Nighthawks. The sceneries are set at different times of the day. But what really stands out is the positioning of the viewer. Unlike in Nighthawks where we view the scene from outside, in Sunlight in a Cafeteria, we are inside looking at the outside. There is a big focus on the inside something that makes the viewer feel the tension between the two.
At the time of painting Sunlight in a Cafeteria, Hopper's health kept faltering. However, this does not hold him back from putting together this iconic piece. He and his wife Josephine kept a detailed journal of their works. He always took the time to refine all the fine details of his work. This is evident in the way he carefully places things and accentuates all the fine details.
His choice of clothing in this piece is dictated by the positioning of the sun rays. She sits where there is full sunlight, while he sits in a shadow hence she wears a sleeveless blue dress while he has his coat on. There is also a strategic placing of the salt shakers and the sauce dispensers. They show the positions of the man and the woman in their respective tables. It is in the simplicity of his paintings that the viewer is able to connect with them and draw a thousand and one ideas on its meaning.