Published: May 7, 2002
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. – The Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) will present an exhibition of one of America’s quintessential realist painters, Edward Hopper (1882-1967), on view May 11 through September 15. “” highlights early works by Hopper against a general overview of the realist tradition from the early part of the century to the apex of its popularity — the establishment of the American Scene movement in the Thirties.
The exhibition, which includes approximately 50 paintings, has been organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and features works from their collection and the Santa Barbara Museum’s Preston Morton Collection of American Art.
“Edward Hopper and Urban Realities” includes more than 30 artists who were working in New York and were originally associated with the influences of Robert Henri and the Ashcan School — George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shinn and George Bellows, among others.
Although Hopper’s work eventually evolved into the style with which he is associated today, his early works reflect the teachings of Henri who encouraged his students to paint urban life as they saw it around them to break with the sentimental idealism of academic art. He urged them to find new subjects and socially minded themes that would make their art relevant to the new age and the common man.
This revolutionary approach to art was a radical departure from the genteel estheticism that had dominated late Nineteenth Century American taste in the visual arts. The group’s often somber palettes and realistic representations of urban life — alleys, tenements and working class people — led to labels such as “Apostles of Ugliness” and “the Ashcan School.” The style of the group had much in common with the earnest human dramas of such earlier European masters as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Diego Velásquez and Francisco Goya — a direct result of Henri’s personal interests. Contrasting with the polished techniques taught in the American art academics of the period, Henri advocated loose, vigorous brushstrokes often thickly applied.
His influence can be easily seen in many of the exhibition’s works such as John Sloan’s “Backyards, Greenwich Village,” William J. Glackens’s “Parade, Washington Square” and George Luks’s “The Little Gray Girl.” The efforts of these artists to capture the gritty reality of urban life mark the beginning of a revitalization of the realist tradition in this country that would continue well into the 1940s. But it would only take one of his students, Edward Hopper, to lead the way to a new American art — one that viewed itself from the inside out, instead of the outside in.
Hopper was born to a middle-class family in the little town of Nyack along the Hudson River in New York State. Although he was well loved by his parents, he had trouble fitting in at school. Throughout his adolescence, he was often mocked by his classmates because of his tall, skinny frame, reaching more than six feet by the age of 12. This painful judgment by his peers may have been a major factor in shaping both the personal and artistic aspects of his life.
Early on he withdrew from society and spent most of his free time painting and drawing for which he showed an innate talent. Because he was so gifted, his parents agreed to send him to study art in New York City, and then to Paris. Hopper’s years of study with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, 1900-06, were most influential and are credited with his allegiance to a purely American style in spite of his European travel from 1906 to 1910.
Hopper painted American landscapes and cityscapes — hotels, houses, bridges, stations and highways. He also liked to paint the public and semipublic places where people gathered: restaurants, theaters, cinemas and offices. Yet almost everything that characterizes daily city life is missing in Hopper’s paintings: the soaring skyscrapers, the crust of traffic, the bustle of crowded sidewalks, the frantic pace and twitchy rhythms, the noise.
Compared to artists such as John Sloan whose brightly colored “Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street” depicts people talking and walking together, Hopper’s urban scenes are deserted or scarcely populated. His empty streets, storefronts and isolated figures evoke such a powerful sense of mystery and alliance that they seem to transcend their particular time and place. In the “El Station,” for example, ghostlike figures blend in the darkness of a deserted train station creating an eerie sense of emptiness that is enhanced by the blunt shapes of the buildings, the closed-off windows, and the stark play of light and shadow.
It is not only the people who appear lonely in Hopper’s works. Through his choice of color and surroundings, Hopper was able to extend the sense of loneliness and isolation to the architecture in his art. The looming “Queens-borough Bridge” offers an early example of the elements of composition that Hopper will retain throughout his career: simple large geometric forms, flat masses of color and the use of architectural elements in his scenes for their strong verticals, horizontals and diagonals.
Hopper painted American urban life with a disturbing truth, expressing the world around him as a chilling, alienating and in Hopper’s own words “a place of sad desolation.” One of the most significant artists of the Twentieth Century, Hopper was brilliant at giving a visual form to the universal feelings of loneliness and isolation, not only of city life, but in a greater sense, of the human condition as well. Edward Hopper died May 15, 1967, in New York City.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is at 1130 State Street. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 5 pm, Sunday, noon to 5 pm, and Friday 11 am to 9 pm. Docent-led tours of special exhibitions are held daily at noon, docent tours of the permanent collections are offered daily at 1 pm. For information, 805-963-4364 or visit www.sbmuseart.org.
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