An American Life [Edward Hopper profile]

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930, Whitney Museum.
Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930, Whitney Museum.
Luxury Magazine, Summer 2020, pp. 190-201.

Edward Hopper’s America

One of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, Edward Hopper painted melancholic cityscapes and rural scenes imbued with loneliness and uncertainty.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

Edward Hopper’s reputation as one of the foremost painters of 20th century America is somewhat paradoxical. He emerged at a time when critics condemned representational painting and promoted the innovations of abstraction, yet he remained a diehard realist. His choice of subjects also seems calculated to short-circuit success. Nearly all of his pictures depict everyday places and unextraordinary people doing nothing in particular. His cityscapes and landscapes are neither awe-inspiring nor picturesque, and their occasional inhabitants tend to be bored cyphers rather than dynamic individuals.

As physical objects, Hopper’s canvases are as modest as their subject matter. Never monumental in scale, often subdued in tone, they are painted in a sort of bland straight-forward manner devoid of overt virtuosity. And yet, despite their retrograde style and commonplace subject matter, Hopper’s works are hailed as artistic landmarks and quintessential documents of American life. How can we account for this apparent disconnect?

It may be that Hopper’s stubborn determination to go his own way, his preference for humble rather than heroic themes, and his sturdy rather than showy compositions, bathe him an aura of homespun simplicity and independence that Americans like to see as native virtues.

But there is also a psychological dimension that deepens Hopper’s appeal. He is known as the painter of loneliness because he represents the somber life of introverted individuals absorbed in their own worlds. Even his unpopulated scenes are enshrouded in an enigmatic stillness, as if time has paused to allow us to contemplate the peculiar sadness of its passing. This aspect is key to his works’ emotive power. Because his subjects are familiar and accessible, his pictures serve as mirrors in which we recognize ourselves. They remind us of having felt alone and withdrawn from society, and offer the comforting insight that these moods are not unique. Perhaps this therapeutic function, coupled with his image as an American original, helps account for Hopper’s canonical stature, as well as his enormous popularity among connoisseurs and the general public.

The Lonely Crowd

Hopper’s life (1882-1967) spanned the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the Jazz Age. It continued through the rise of Hollywood, the Second World War, the nuclear age and the Cold War, and culminated amid the Vietnam War, the birth of rock and roll, and the counterculture of the 1960s. Yet, throughout this dynamic epoch, Hopper’s work remained divorced from the grand history of headlines and celebrities.

Working mainly in New York City and small towns along the New England coast, Hopper depicted unextraordinary and overlooked people and places. Rather than the grand art deco skyscrapers that defined progress and modernity, he trained his eye on aging apartment buildings, empty parks, darkened theaters, office interiors, and hotel lobbies. He never painted traffic jams or airports, bustling factories or markets, packed speakeasies, or baseball games. He had no interest in world leaders, movie stars, pop-music icons or hippies. The teeming throngs are absent, represented by solitary figures in sparsely furnished rooms, often with a window hinting at the siren call of public life.

He was especially fascinated with women and their changing role in society. Some are home alone, sewing, reading, smoking, sometimes nude and often looking out the window. When they are joined by their husbands, there is an atmosphere of alienation and repressed sexuality. He also portrayed women moving out into the world: an office girl drinking coffee at the automat, a movie theatre usherette lost in thought, a waitress arranging the display in a restaurant window, a dolled-up secretary working late with her boss, and a red-headed striptease artist shimmying across the stage in his raciest picture, The Girlie Show (1941).
Nighthawks

Hopper’s most recognizable masterpiece is Nighthawks (1942), a nocturnal diner scene that has become as iconic a bit of Americana as Grant Wood’s pitchfork-wielding midwestern couple, American Gothic. (Both works are in The Art Institute of Chicago.) The subject is nothing special: two men in dark suits and grey fedoras, a woman with a red dress and chestnut hair, and a white-clad server are seen through the plate-glass window that wraps the corner of the café. The bright light of the interior floods the foreground sidewalk and angles across a narrow street onto the façade of a building with shuttered shops below a row of vacant apartment windows. Hopper presents the scene as one might come across it on a nocturnal walk. The night owls are unengaged with one another and unaware that they are being seen, caged in a bell jar of urban isolation.

A similar sensibility imbues Early Sunday Morning (1930), an unpopulated stretch of shopfronts and apartments in a red-brick building on Seventh Avenue. The air of arrested time and desolation envelopes rural subjects as well, scenes that feature isolated farms, late-19th-century houses, secluded gas stations, and country roads lined with telegraph poles that lead into the woods. One of his best known is House by the Railroad (1925), a panorama in which a Victorian house looms above a railroad embankment. The ornate and somewhat sinister structure inspired the Bates mansion in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Hopper makes these scenes memorable by stripping away unnecessary detail, creating strong effects of light and shadow, and using a limited palette brushed on in broad flat areas of color.

“The Loneliness Thing”

Hopper was depressive and taciturn, a loner averse to society who preferred to read and work in solitude. His anomie led him to paint places devoid of people, and when he did include figures they tend to be alone and turned inward, often looking towards some undefined spot out of frame. Even when accompanied by one or more other figures they rarely interact. Their self-absorption, and Hopper’s own image as a sullen recluse, gave rise to his reputation as a painter of loneliness and discontent. Towards the end of his life, he complained that “the loneliness thing is overdone,” but he acknowledged, “It’s probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don’t know. It could be the whole human condition.”

In any case, he and his fictive cast of characters represent a dimmed version of the American Dream, one that chimes with Henry David Thoreau’s observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Amid the COVID pandemic, Hopper’s somber vision has gained renewed currency, with his paintings posted on social media as evocations of deserted cities and lonely people sheltering at home. An apt candidate for this role is the elegiacal House at Dusk (1935), in which a solitary woman leans on the sill of an upper-story window in a Renaissance-revival apartment building. The street below is out of frame, but we suspect that it is empty, like the stairs at right leading into a shadowy park. It doesn’t take much to imagine her longing for escape.

Modernist Realism

Hopper was not religious, but he was conservative, a lifelong Republican who voted against Franklin Roosevelt. He opposed the New Deal’s employment of artists in the Works Progress Administration because he felt it promoted mediocrity. He never dabbled in abstraction, expressionism, or any of the other isms, but he shared the modernist search for visual means to convey subjective experience. “My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature,” he once explained. He believed that realism was necessary to reflect an artist’s emotional encounter with the world, and that the rage for abstraction was misguided. He joined the “Reality” group that protested museums’ favoritism for abstraction, and in 1953 wrote in the organization’s journal, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form and design…Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.”

Like many American artists, he was determined to develop a native art distinct from European influence. In the catalogue of his 1933 show at the Museum of Modern Art, Hopper wrote that after decades of “domination” by France, it was high time for American artists to move on from their “apprenticeship.” He distinguished himself from the so-called Ash Can School painters, John Sloan and George Bellows, whom he knew. They illustrated vignettes of American life, but Hopper said that they captured America and he was more interested in capturing himself. Their realist successors were the American Scene painters, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, but Hopper deemed their pictures caricature. In his own work, Hopper portrayed American life refracted through the lens of his own personality. The artist Charles Burchfield saw him as the truest exponent of American realism. In Hopper, he wrote, “we have regained the sturdy American independence which Thomas Eakins gave us, but which for a time was lost.”

Struggling Career

Hopper worked for decades before gaining recognition. He was born in 1882, the second child in a middle-class Baptist family in Nyack, NY, a town on the Hudson River 25 miles north of Manhattan. The wood-frame house where he grew up, a few blocks from the river, is today a historic landmark and art center. His father had a dry goods store and his mother was an amateur artist. A gawky six-foot adolescent, Hopper spent much of his time on his own, exploring the docks, making model boats, and drawing and painting. His parents encouraged his art, but insisted that he get practical training.

He studied commercial illustration at a school in Manhattan, then enrolled at the New York School of Art, a forerunner of Parsons, whose founder, American impressionist William Merritt Chase, had broken from the academic Art Students League to advocate more progressive approaches. Another teacher, Robert Henri, admired Frans Hals and Édouard Manet, and urged students to paint modern life. Hopper excelled and after graduation stayed on to teach, then from 1906 to 1910 made three trips to Europe, spending most of his time in Paris. Picasso, Braque, Matisse and others were rising stars, but Hopper had no contact with the avant-garde. He studied the masters in the museums and painted like a late impressionist. His most important work from this period, Soir Bleu (1914), is a café scene in the French tradition, with a motley cast of characters that would be right at home in a Toulouse-Lautrec.

He eked out a living illustrating trade and business journals, but loathed the work and struggled to support himself from his art. A sailboat picture that he submitted to the landmark Armory Show of 1913 found a buyer, but it was the last painting he would sell for a decade. He moved from midtown to a walkup on Washington Square North in Greenwich Village. The flat had no toilet or refrigerator, and was heated by coal that he lugged up the stairs, but Hopper would remain there for the rest of his life. (The apartment, now owned by New York University, can be visited by appointment.)

Unable to sell oil paintings, in 1915 he began making etchings influenced by Rembrandt, Degas and John Sloan — melancholic scenes of the city at night, women in working-class bedrooms, and lonesome rural houses. Prints like American Landscape (1920), which depicts cattle crossing a railroad track near a farmhouse, contain all the elements of Hopper’s mature work. The Whitney Studio Club, led by patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who later founded The Whitney Museum of American Art, mounted his first solo show in 1920 – organized by his friend and former classmate Guy Péne du Bois — but none of the 16 paintings sold.

In 1923, on a painting trip to Gloucester, MA, he began courting Josephine Nivison, an artist who had attended the New York School of Art. She helped place his watercolors in an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, and the museum purchased his portrait of a sun-drenched Gloucester house, The Mansard Roof (1923). (The house is one of many extant sites that Hopper biographer Gail Levin photographed for her book Hopper’s Places.) They married the following year, when they were both in their early 40s, and she moved into the Greenwich Village walkup.

Rancorous Marriage

Petite and chatty, a former actress and school teacher, Jo was the opposite of her 6’ 5” taciturn husband. “Sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well,” she said, “except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” Though she admired his art, their 43-year marriage was marked by mutual resentment and rancor. She served as his model, secretary, and manager, and let her own artistic career fade under his condescending gaze. We know from her diaries that she was a virgin when they met, and she gained no pleasure from their lovemaking. “The whole thing was entirely for him, for his benefit,” she wrote. She described brawls in which he slapped and pushed her around, and she scratched and bit, even drawing blood. On their 25th anniversary she quipped that they “deserve a medal for distinguished combat,” and Hopper duly sketched her a coat of arms featuring a rolling pin and ladle.

But their partnership kindled his success. He soon had his first solo show at a gallery, Frank K.M. Rehn on Fifth Avenue, whose owner represented major American artists and would remain Hopper’s dealer for the rest of his career. The show sold out, and Hopper quit illustration to focus on his own work. He and Jo bought their first car and began taking road trips to New England, the Southeast, and the West Coast, and in later decades often visited Mexico by rail. They summered in South Truro on Cape Cod, and in 1934, with an inheritance she had received, the couple built a house and studio on land they had acquired on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

Hills, South Truro (1930), completed during that first visit to the Cape, depicts the landscape where they eventually decided to live. The composition proceeds from a secluded house in the foreground, past a railroad track, into a middle ground of softly undulating hills carpeted in fecund green and umber in alternating light and dark. In the distance lies a ribbon of blue sea beneath a sky veiled with delicate pale-yellow clouds tinged with eastern sunlight. Hopper’s characteristic feelings of quiet and solitude are present, but so is a subdued optimism, perhaps evidence of a fondness for the place that led him to return nearly every summer.

By this time, Hopper’s career was in full swing. House by the Railroad had become the first oil painting to enter the permanent collection of the newly opened Museum of Modern Art. The Whitney purchased Early Sunday Morning and hung it in their inaugural show in 1931, and the Metropolitan Museum bought the restaurant scene Tables for Ladies (1930). His work appeared regularly in the Whitney’s annual and biennial shows, and in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. MoMA mounted a retrospective in 1933, the Art Institute of Chicago surveyed his watercolors in 1939, and the Whitney held a retrospective in 1950, curated by Hopper’s ardent supporter Lloyd Goodrich, that traveled to Boston and Detroit.

Late Work

We think of Hopper as a pre-war artist, before Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, but his final decades overlapped with Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. As the artworld moved on, so did the critics, but he remained a respected eminence, profiled in Time magazine’s 1956 Christmas issue in a cover story titled, “The Silent Witness.”

His later works take on an abstract grandeur and metaphysical gravitas. Rooms by the Sea (1951), an interior with a door that appears to open directly over the sea, has the enigmatic quality of a Magritte. Streaming sunlight creates a hard-edged geometry on the wall, an element that takes center stage in an even more minimal work, Sun in an Empty Room (1963). In this summa, Hopper jettisons everything but the bare essentials of his art – light and shade, surface and volume, and the interpenetrability of interior and exterior space.

He did not entirely abandon the anecdotal in his late years. Western Motel (1957) is an almost tender recollection of travels with Jo. A blond woman faces us from the foot of a bed, and suitcases rest on the floor as if she and her traveling companion have just arrived or are about to leave. Through the huge window behind her we see the hood of their green car, a ribbon of road, and sun-topped hills beneath the open sky. In his final painting, Two Comedians (1966), a pantomime couple dressed in white, stand-ins for Ed and Jo, take the stage one last time for their final bow.

Hopper’s health had long been in decline. He had thyroid and pituitary problems – possibly a cause of his depression — and in 1948 a prostate operation led to the first of many hospitalizations. In 1967, at 84 years of age, he died in the Washington Square studio. Jo passed away ten months later.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

Addenda

Hopper’s Legacy

Hopper completed 366 oil paintings, hundreds of watercolors, about 70 etchings, and numerous preparatory drawings and illustrations. Most of his paintings are in American museums, though major works belong to Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, and Steve Martin. One of his paintings, Chop Suey (1929), depicting two women in a Chinese restaurant, sold in 2018 for $92 million, the record for his work at auction.

The largest cache is the bequest that Jo left to the Whitney Museum. The gift includes not only masses of art, but ledger books in which Hopper made thumbnail drawings of every oil, watercolor, or print that he planned to sell. Jo penciled in the dates, descriptions, sale price, buyer, notes on exhibitions and reviews, and notes about where and how the works were made, even the brands of paints and canvas used.

The Whitney frequently mounts Hopper retrospectives, and whenever they do attendance surpasses everything else on view. Scholars and curators continue to explore aspects of his work. Last winter, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presented “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” a show that will be at the Indianapolis Museum of Arts through September. And his reputation in Europe has grown steadily in recent decades. On view at the Beyeler Foundation near Basel, Switzerland, until July 26, is “Edward Hopper: A Fresh Look at Landscape.”

Wim Wenders created a Hopperesque short to accompany the Beyeler show, joining Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, and other film directors who pay homage to Hopper’s film-noire aesthetic. Photographers Robert Adams, Dianne Arbus, Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston share Hopper’s penchant for solitary figures in humble settings brimming with psychological tension. The British writer Geoff Dyer suggests that Hopper “could claim to be the most influential American photographer of the twentieth century — even though he didn’t take any photographs.” Hopper resonates also with writers and musicians. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a poem that gives voice to the characters in Nighthawks, Tom Waits composed the song “Nighthawks at the Diner,” and Madonna titled her 1993 tour “Girlie Show” after the Hopper burlesque painting of that name.

On the Cover

Everyone can relate to the humble paintings of Edward Hopper (1882–1967). The celebrated realist, a resident of New York’s Greenwich Village, painted empty streets lined with shuttered shopfronts, and isolated figures lost in thought in modest apartments, midnight diners, and darkened theaters. We empathize with his anomie, which seems to have accompanied him even on summer retreats to rural New England, where he made studies of Victorian houses, weather-beaten farms, and out-of-the-way lighthouses, usually with nobody around. But, if his reputation as our visual poet of solitude is well earned, Hopper’s paintings often convey not so much melancholy as metaphysical reverie. A powerful example is Rooms by the Sea, the 29 ¼ x 40-inch oil on canvas in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT.

Completed in autumn 1951, Hopper based the composition on the interior of the Cape Cod studio that he and his wife, Josephine Nivison, built on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As with most of his work, he pared down the scene and painted it in a workmanlike manner that eschewed fancy brushwork and chromatic dazzle. His goal was never to reproduce the world in all its minute detail, but to produce an image that evoked his state of mind.

Through an open door, we see an expanse of azure sea and pale blue sky. Sunlight streams diagonally into the house, casting a luminous white polygon on the shadowy wall and yellow floor. To the left, we glimpse a partial view of an adjacent room, green-carpeted and furnished with an oak bookcase and red-upholstered settee beneath a gold-framed picture highlighted by sun from an unseen window.

The intensity of Hopper’s observation of light and shade is impressive, but a compositional trick takes the picture to another level. In the view out the back door, he omits the house’s deck and the land that descends to the beach, giving the uncanny impression that the door opens directly onto — or hovers above — the sea. This eye-catching bit of surrealism emphasizes the threshold between the domestic space of the house and the unfathomable vastness of nature. Hopper originally titled the work “Rooms by the Sea. Alias The Jumping Off Place,” referring to the vertiginous doorway, and perhaps also to the painting’s function as a catalyst for philosophical meditation.

Jason Edward Kaufman ©

A version of this article appeared in Luxury Magazine, Summer 2020, pp. 190-201.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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