As American artists rebelled against the academic art and aristocratic portraiture that predominated at the turn of the Twentieth Century, they began looking to modern life for their subject matter. One of central figures in this dramatic shift was Edward Hopper, whose work will be exhibited in relation to his most important contemporaries in “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,” opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art on October 28 and running to April 10.
The exhibition will include approximately 85 works in a range of media, primarily from the Whitney’s collection, which includes more than 2,500 works from Hopper’s estate bequeathed to the Whitney in 1968, and combining well-known works with rarely exhibited early paintings and works on paper.
Placing Hopper beside such artists as Robert Henri, John Sloan, Guy Pène du Bois, Paul Strand, William Glackens, George Ault, George Bellows, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Charles Demuth, Ben Shahn, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Ralston Crawford, Charles Sheeler, Lisette Model, and Reginald Marsh, the show traces the development of Realism in American art in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
The work of Edward Hopper (1882‱967) has been presented often by the Whitney throughout the institution’s history, beginning with his first solo exhibition conducted at the Whitney Studio Club in 1920, but “Modern Life” is the first Whitney exhibition to focus specifically on the context in which he worked. It follows Hopper’s evolution into America’s most iconic Realist painter, tracing his connections to the artistic movements that paralleled his work, while also highlighting his development of a singular aesthetic that would ultimately distinguish his art from that of his contemporaries.
“Modern Life” begins in 1900, the year that Hopper arrived on New York’s art scene. In the exhibition’s first section, his art will be seen alongside the work of the Ashcan School artists, who boldly depicted the changing social and political environment of New York using rapid, loose, Impressionistic brushstrokes, heavy impasto and a dark, gritty palette.
In the first decade of the century, Hopper studied with both Robert Henri and John Sloan, and quickly began to exhibit with the artists in their circle. The lessons Hopper learned from them †especially the urge to paint everyday, even mundane subjects, and a passion for capturing dramatic light effects †were immediately evident in his early paintings.
The next section of “Modern Life” examines Hopper’s relationship to artists who painted the excitement of urban life in the “Roaring Twenties,” including Guy Pène du Bois and George Bellows who, like Hopper, were students of Robert Henri and represented a younger generation of the Realist school initiated by the Ashcan group. Though not as stylized as the work of these artists, Hopper’s paintings and prints of the 1920s share a similar approach. Works like his iconic “Early Sunday Morning” are drawn from observed reality and yet are devoid of characteristic details that tie them to a specific place and time.
Also explored are the connections between Hopper’s art and that of the Precisionists, who began to paint American factories, skyscrapers and machine-made structures during the 1920s. Characterized by crisp lines, hard-edged geometric shapes and flat planes of color, the Precisionist style embodied the sense of order, logic and purity identified with science and the machine. For Hopper, as for the Precisionists, architecture offered a means of exploring formal geometries and light effects.
The next section of the exhibition examines Hopper’s rural paintings of the 1930s in the context of other American artists who retreated to the countryside in search of a reprieve from the commotion of modern urban life.
The exhibition’s final room presents Hopper’s urban paintings of the 1930s alongside those of the Social Realists, including Reginald Marsh, Paul Cadmus and the Soyer brothers, Raphael and Isaac.
The Whitney Museum is at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street. For information, 212-570-3600 or www.whitney.org .