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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

By Alexandra A Jopp

America’s foremost modern painter; famous for his portrayal of American landscapes, urban streets and a vernacular American architecture.
Edward Hopper is on the short list of America’s greatest artists. In numerous etchings, watercolors and oils, he depicted ordinary Americans and scenes from everyday life that are considered icons of modern art. His subjects were painted in an expansive and simplified realistic style that used stark contrasts of light and shadow. The mood and atmosphere characteristic of Hopper’s paintings can be seen in his best known works, such as Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929) New York Movie,(1930); Office at Night (1940); Gas (1940) and Nighthawks (1942), one of the most famous paintings in the history of American art.
 Nighthawks (1942)
New York Movie, (1930).

Edward Hopper
Office at Night, 1940
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Gift of the T.B. Walker Foundation, Gilbert M. Walker Fund, 1948
The Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1929.

The spare and lucid paintings of Hopper are among the most enduring, hypnotic, and unsentimental images of American places ever made. Contrasting with the archetypal, often more generalized oil paintings, Hopper's watercolors such as "Cobb's  House (in South Truro on Cape Cod)" were consistently based on direct observation. First-person statements on are and nature by Hopper are few. The following comments are drawn from three sources: the first paragraph from Katherine Kuh's interview in her book, The Artist's voice; the second and fourth from an interview with Brian O'Doherty published in Art in America; and the third from Hopper's own catalog statement, made in 1933. 

"I chose to leave on Cape Cod because it has a longer summer season. I like Maine very much, but it gets so cold in the fall. There is something soft about Cape Cod that doesn't appeal to me too much. But there is a beautiful light there - very luminous - perhaps its so far out to sea; an island almost ...I am a realist and react to natural phenomena. 

It's like sunsets. The people around here keep telling me about beautiful sunsets. It's what you add that makes it beautiful...the unsophisticated think there's something inherent in [the subject] ... a pond with lilies or something. There isn't, of course.

My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature. I have tried to present my sensations in what is most congenial and impressive form possible to me.

The thing that makes me so mad is the American Scene business. I never tried to do the American Scene as Benton and Curry and the Midwestern painters did. I think the American Scene  painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do myself. The French painters did not talk about the "French Scene" or the English painters about the "English Scene." It always gets a rise out of me. The American quality is in a painter - he does not have to strive for it. "

Hopper was born on July 22, 1882, in Nyack, N.Y., on the Hudson River, a few miles north of Manhattan. His roots reach back to the old Dutch settlements that interrupt the wooded bluffs and promontories along the lower Hudson River. His father, Garret Henry Hopper, ran a dry goods store. His mother, Elizabeth Griffiths Smith Hopper, encouraged her children’s interest in theatre and art. Hopper’s early training took place at the New York School of Art under such artists as William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Robert Henri. For nearly 20 years afterward, Hopper made his living as an illustrator.

Between 1906 and 1910, Hopper made three trips to Europe, spending much of his time in Paris. While he apparently was not influenced by the radical artistic movements such as Cubism and Fauvism then emerging in the French capital, he did embrace Impressionist techniques. As Gail Levin observed in Hopper’s Places, “Not only did the pastel tonalities of Renoir, Sisley, and Monet motivate him to lighten his own palette, but under the influence of their work, he also painted with shorter, more broken brushstrokes.”1 Though the strokes were fluid, he placed them so precisely that the whole work becomes sharp and clear. Hopper was so committed to realism, to portraying life as he saw it in front of him that he said that his “aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription of my most intimate impressions of nature.”2

Edward Hopper, Hotel Lobby 1943.
Edward Hopper, Sun in an Empty Room.
Rooms by the Sea (1951).
In 1913, Hopper was included in New York City’s famous Armory Show exhibition, and he sold his painting Sailing (1911) there. He then began his career as a commercial artist, though he wanted to paint “sunlight on the side of a house.” He first exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club in 1920, but it was during the next decade that he developed his own way of looking at things. In 1924, when he was 42 years old; he was given a one-man exhibition at the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery in New York City. The show sold out, and Hopper became a sensation in the art world. That was also the year he married the painter Josephine Verstille Nivison. By 1925, he had given up on commercial art and was devoting himself primarily to oils and watercolors. A few years later, the now-established Hopper and his wife started dividing their time between New York and a summer home on Cape Cod, though they also traveled across the United States and into Mexico. Hopper depicted in his paintings many of the sights they came upon during those trips. In 1942, he produced his signature work, Nighthawks, a depiction of an urban diner that masterfully uses light and space.

Cape Cod Morning (1950)
Gas (1940).

Edward Hopper was one of the America’s best and most important representational painters of the twentieth century. He was a modernist, a symbolist, a realist and a self-proclaimed Impressionist. He was, Philip Leider wrote, “one of the very few artists whose work cuts across all the lines of contention that characterized his times.”3 Hopper searched for the typical scene, not the flamboyant one, and found that he often had to choose from a number of experiences and reduce them to a common denominator on which to base his style. He paid special interest to architecture – buildings, cafés, shops, lighthouses, railroad stations – to means of transportation – trains, boats, automobiles – and to figures related to his surroundings. Hopper’s evocative images – like the works of Picasso, whom Hopper considered “unpredictable” – show us a new way of seeing the twentieth century.

1: Levin, Gail. Hopper’s Places. (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), p. 151.
2: Morgan, Ann Lee. The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 229.
3: Leider, Philip. “Vermeer and Hopper,” Art in America 89, no. 3 (2001): p.103.