“It is hard to think of another painter who is getting more of the quality of America in his canvases than Edward Hopper,” art historian Lloyd Goodrich once observed during the artist’s lifetime. Hopper, the great chronicler of the rootlessness and anonymity of modern life, is one of the most enduringly popular and important American painters of the Twentieth Century. With an unerring eye and ample skill, he explored the psyche and surroundings of his fellow citizens in works that have become icons of our art.
Hopper’s depictions of the mundane in urban, rural and seacoast settings †restaurants and diners, gas stations, hotel rooms and lobbies, house exteriors, domestic interiors, office scenes, empty streets and lighthouses †captured universal moments of beauty, loneliness and introspection. His art captured the timelessness of the ordinary and the uneventful in ways that continue to resonate with viewers. His imagery has significantly influenced artists, photographers, filmmakers, writers and facets of popular culture.
“Edward Hopper,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, features approximately 100 paintings, watercolors and prints dating primarily from 1925 to 1950. It will be on view in Boston through August 19, 2007.
“Hopper was best known as a great image maker, but he was also a masterful painter,” notes exhibition co-curator Carol Troyen, John Moors Cabot Curator of American Paintings at the MFA, Boston. “His memorable depictions of everyday life are also elegantly constructed compositions, and the works in ‘Edward Hopper’ demonstrate the sensuous contrasts of sun and shadow in his oils and the evocative surfaces of his light-filled watercolors.”
Hopper contended that his art was rooted in reality and observation, but its often puzzling imagery stimulates viewers to speculate about causes and outcomes. Overall, the dramas he depicted reflect the mood and feel of his own time.
Born into a prosperous family in Nyack, N.Y., Hopper (1882‱967) grew up within sight of the Hudson River, developing a lifelong love of water and boats. His parents encouraged their son’s interest in art from an early age.
After graduating from high school and studying illustrating briefly, in 1901 Hopper began studies at the New York School of Art under such celebrated teachers as William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller and, most importantly, Robert Henri. The latter encouraged his students to paint with gusto and to find their subjects in the everyday world around them. Among Hopper’s fellow students were George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, George Luks and John Sloan.
Predisposed by Henri’s teaching to admire French masters of earlier times, Hopper’s three trips to Paris between 1906 and 1910 helped shape his artistic identity as an observant outsider. By 1913 he was ensconced in a fourth-floor walkup at 3 Washington Square North in Greenwich Village, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Success came slowly to this tall (6’4″), reticent, dour artist. In his self-portrait of around 1925″0 he looks warily toward but not directly at the viewer, suggesting his guarded, withdrawn nature.
For years, while painting on the side, Hopper supported himself through commercial illustration, which he came to dislike because of its prescribed subject matter and constant deadlines. This work did, however, prompt him to produce pictures that told stories clearly and unambiguously.
Starting around 1915, Hopper’s dramatically composed, story-telling prints earned him critical recognition. The intimacy of his portrayal of a couple in his 1918 etching “Night on the El Train,” 1921, prompted one critic to dub him, admiringly, “an O. Henry of the needle.” Other etchings suggested his empathy with the working classes, while his ominous “Night Shadows,” 1921, depicted from the heights of a skyscraper, conveyed the solitariness of big-city life.
In spite of the success of his prints, Hopper sold only one painting before he was 41 years old. His breakthrough came in 1923 when his now-celebrated watercolor, “The Mansard Roof,” highlighting lights and shadows on a mansion in Gloucester, Mass., was included in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum and was purchased by the museum for $100.
The following year he married a fellow Henri student/painter, Josephine Nivison, who became his long-suffering muse and record-keeper. In 1924 Hopper also began a careerlong association with Frank Rehn’s Fifth Avenue gallery, with an exhibition of watercolors of Victorian houses that reflected the artist’s sense of history and love of architecture. It also documented Hopper’s lifelong commitment “to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”
During several visits to Gloucester, famed for its busy, picturesque harbor, Hopper explained that “when everyone else would be painting ships and the waterfront, I’d just go around looking at houses.” Among the highlights: “Haskell’s House,” 1924, showing a mansard-roofed mansion on a hill framed by modern-day telephone poles, and “Anderson’s House,” 1926, featuring a modest 1870s clapboard structure on a busy street.
Hopper also became well-known for watercolors and paintings created during summers in Maine in the late 1920s. Some of his finest work recorded houses, a railroad crossing, a lime quarry and beam trawlers and other vessels in the harbor in Rockland in 1926.
Also outstanding are images of lighthouses and keepers’ quarters around Portland. “Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine,” 1927, a watercolor, immortalized venerable structures extant to this day in Fort William Park. He recorded in three stark oils, painted from interesting vantage points, a nearby lighthouse complex at Two Lights, still standing, including “Captain Upton’s House,” 1927, “Lighthouse Hill,” 1927, and “Lighthouse at Two Lights,” 1929. In downtown Portland, Hopper used watercolors for evocative views of the old Custom House and what is now Victoria Mansion.
In 1930 the Hoppers began to frequent Cape Cod, building a summer house/studio in Truro in 1934. His pictures of houses, lighthouses and the landscape of the area included “Hills, South Truro,” a 1930 oil, in which the undulating dunes recall the rolling ocean. “Room for Tourists,” 1945, depicts a brightly lit, but forlorn Provincetown inn.
Hopper’s best-known works grew out of solitary wanderings around Manhattan, views from his apartment, and observations while riding the el train. Rather than focusing on skyscrapers and other symbols of the energetic, Jazz-Age metropolis, he zeroed in on the city’s stores and eateries, aging brownstones, dusty storefronts, lonely streets and undistinguished bridges †and sometimes the people who frequented them.
He said “Early Sunday Morning,” 1930, with its long, low row of brick structures punctuated with a barber pole, was “almost a literal translation of Seventh Avenue.” In “Drug Store,” 1927, the brilliantly lit pharmacy stands eerily isolated in its nocturnal setting.
Hopper’s wonderfully enigmatic paintings of isolated women in restaurants, such as “Automat,” 1927, and “Chop Suey,” 1929, evoke what curator Troyen calls “the mysterious dramas of modern life in the city.”
His iconic painting “Nighthawks,” 1942, repeatedly reworked in advertisements, cartoons, posters and movies, was based on an all-night diner (no longer standing) at the intersection of Seventh and Greenwich Avenues and Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village, not far from the painter’s home/studio. Under cold fluorescent light a couple and a solitary man hunch over their cups of coffee as the counterman bends to his tasks. Empty, shadowy buildings form a silent backdrop.
The picture’s unsettling quality has led to numerous interpretations over the years. (In “Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ and the Dark Side of the American Psyche,” for example, a 244-page book published last year by St Martin’s Press, author Gordon Theisen finds the painting a desolate, pessimistic take on America’s soul.)
“[T]he story behind the picture †the events that brought the figures to this place, who they are and what they are doing †is difficult to gauge, as is the observer’s role in the drama,” says Troyen. “In the end, ‘Nighthawks,’ like most of Hopper’s pictorial dramas, resists definitive interpretation.”
Pictures that recreate scenes Hopper said he observed while wandering the city’s streets abound in the exhibition. “Room in New York,” 1932, offers a glimpse of a seemingly alienated couple in a cramped room: she looks ready to go out for the evening, while he seems oblivious to her, having taken off his coat and reading the newspaper. It was based, said the painter, on “glimpses of lighted interiors seen as I walked along city streets a night.” Sunlight on the solitary woman in “Room in Brooklyn,” 1932, somehow enhances the unsettling nature of an otherwise mundane scene.
Growing out of illustrations earlier in his career for magazines, Hopper executed intriguing paintings of office interiors. In “Office at Night,” 1940, the curvaceous secretary doing filing after hours is apparently ignored by her buttoned-down boss working at his desk. Their proximity adds to the palpable tension and sense of psychic distance between them.
An avid moviegoer, as well as fan of burlesque and Broadway shows, Hopper’s sketches of theater interiors led to memorable paintings. “The Sheridan Theatre,” 1937, showing a woman leaning against a balustrade amid the architectural splendor of the interior of that old Greenwich Village landmark (demolished in 1969), is the focal point of a fascinating exhibition exploring the flourishing movie culture of the 1930s, at the Newark Museum through August 19.
Hopper’s resilient wife, Josephine, was the model for all his female figures. “Hopper’s clothed women,” opines Troyen, “tend to be more alluring than his nudes.” Those familiar with “Girlie Show,” 1941, with its nude, boldly strutting striptease artist, might argue with that conclusion, but it fits “Summertime,” 1943, with its sexy young woman dressed in a tight, revealing dress accentuated by bright sunlight. In “New York Movie,” 1939, a blonde usherette wearing a form-fitting uniform is lost in thought in a theater’s side aisle; she is at once attractive, isolated and unavailable in Hopper’s composition.
Hopper adroitly manipulated light to heighten the solitariness of contemplative women in interior spaces †and to raise questions about who they are and what they are doing there. “Morning in a City,” 1944, for example, offers an unsettling, voyeuristic view into the private world of a nude woman standing bathed in light gazing out an open window. “Hopper’s presentation of the woman’s body seems as objective and noncommittal as images of bathers and laundresses by Edgar Degas& likewise observed at private moments in awkward, inelegant poses,” says Troyen.
“Morning in a City” and its preparatory sketches were centerpieces of “Drawing on Hopper: Gregory Crewdson/Edward Hopper” an intriguing recent exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art, which owns the painting. The show explored Hopper’s creative process and how his painting profoundly influenced three of Crewdson’s elaborately staged, contemporary photographs. Acknowledging his debt to Hopper’s images of “beauty, sadness, alienation and desire,” Crewdson said the older artist’s work “has shaped the essential themes and interests in the work of so many” creative people, including himself.
After a slow start, Hopper became a star in the art world following a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933, when he was 51 years old. Showered with honors, awards and exhibitions, he continued to paint and travel to the end.
Working slowly and steadily in the 1950s and 60s, he reprised old themes, but with added austerity. “Western Motel,” 1957, and “Second Story Sunlight,” 1960, strong, enigmatic paintings created when he was in his 70s, document the high caliber of his late work.
In exploring the loneliness and alienation that were central to the American experience during much of the last century, Edward Hopper created lasting glimpses into the soul and psyche of his fellow citizens. “Where others would have seen the banality of modern American culture,” writes art curator Judith A. Barter in the catalog, “Hopper created genuine beauty.”
Since his death 40 years ago, Hopper’s reputation, influence and popularity †and prices for his works †have continued to grow.
The quality of his oeuvre and the themes he explored so brilliantly are amply reflected in the in this exhibition. The exhibition will travel, stopping in Washington, D.C., from September 16 through January 21, and in Chicago from February 16 through May 11, 2008.
The 288-page illustrated exhibition catalog features essays by Troyen, Barter and three other experts. Published by the MFA, Boston it sells for $65 hardcover and $45 softcover. The Museum of Fine Arts is at 465 Huntington Avenue. For information call 617-267-9300 or visit www.mfa.org .