Feature Archive

How Edward Hopper Saw the Light

By Joseph Phelan

Even people who don't know the name Edward Hopper (1882-1967) might be very familiar with his images, such as House by the Railroad, Lighthouse at Two Lights or Nighthawks, either in the originals, via reproductions or from the myriad movies they inspired. At the beginning of the 21st century, Hopper's realistic and representational art, both haunting and iconic, resonates more strongly with our sensibilities than almost any other American painter of his time. "Great art," he once said, "is the outward expression of the inner life of the artist and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world." A new traveling exhibit focusing on his mature work from 1925 to 1950 is currently packing them in (as Hopper shows always do) at Washington's National Gallery of Art. This exhibit provides an occasion for some reflections on Hopper's artistic vision and how he achieved it.

Born in Nyack, New York, a small resort town on the Hudson River which was also the birthplace of another highly idiosyncratic artist, Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper's earliest memory was of gazing out the window at the house next door: "there was a sort of elation about the sunlight on the upper part of a house", he once said. A shy, tall boy, who liked to draw and read, his graphic gifts were recognized and supported early by his middle class, well-read parents, who nevertheless urged him to study commercial illustration rather than painting.

Hopper went to school in nearby midtown Manhattan, where he soon came under the influence of two very talented but very different painters: William Merritt Chase, an American impressionist, and Robert Henri, a realist who would soon found the gritty "Ashcan School". A fellow student noted that Chase "preached art for art's sake; Henri art for life's sake. The difference was monumental."

Hopper stayed a remarkably long six years at the school, winning prizes and honors. Afterwards he traveled to Europe, where for almost a year he visited museums and galleries while spending the mornings painting on the banks of the Seine. Apart from providing an occasion for a close study of Manet and Degas, his time in Paris allowed him to observe the somewhat shocking difference between the "pleasure loving" Parisians looking for "a good time" on the boulevards and in the cafes and the New Yorkers "with that never ending determination for the 'long green'."

Two more European trips followed in quick succession in 1909 and 1910. Shortly after his return from the second trip, Hopper painted Summer Interior, one of the few early works in the exhibit. This brooding, intimate work may have been inspired by Edgar Degas' more sexually daring Interior, which depicts a certain male-female confrontation. The abstract patch of light, here located on the floor, is a compositional device Hopper loved to use in his mature work in order to depict the indomitable light of nature breaking into the human world of a room. We observe his use of this light in such works as A Woman in the Sun, Excursion into Philosophy, and Rooms by the Sea. Hopper once laconically summed up his achievement by stating that "I guess I'm not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house."

Back in Manhattan, Hopper found the city "awfully crude and raw." "It took me a decade to get Europe out of my system," he said. At this time Hopper worked as a commercial illustrator, something he later described as a "depressive experience." This inner struggle between what Hopper did for a living and his highest artistic aspirations is perhaps evident in New York Corner (New York Salon), the impressionism of which strikes us in the background buildings on the left, while we note an urgent sense of form in the simplified geometry of the windows and shades on the right. This heavy, dreary scene is also the most crowded one Hopper ever painted. In later works, such as Drug Store and Early Sunday Morning, the artist would simplify his street scenes by eliminating any suggestion of the "hustle and bustle" that is taken to distinguish urban life.

Besides earning a living with his commercial work, Hopper began to explore the medium of etching. As we can see in the web feature (see below), it is in this challenging medium, which had at one time or other fully engaged the likes of Rembrandt, Goya and Whistler, that Hopper began to reveal his masterful draughtmanship and his powerful personal vision. We see isolated figures, desolate urban scenes, and nineteenth-century Victorian architecture, all in strong contrasts of light and shadow from unusual and unexpected viewpoints. Hopper seems to be pouring out the darker inner currents which could not find expression in his workaday commercial output. Not surprisingly, when exhibited these pieces were highly praised and quickly sold.

Etching required Hopper to work in his studio, and so he had to rely on his memory or sketches rather than paint from direct sight. He gradually began to invent his subject matter and carefully work out his compositions. If we compare American Landscape with House by the Railroad, or Night Shadows with Nighthawks, we see how much these iconic oil paintings owe to Hopper's early sketches.

In the early 1920s, Hopper began spending summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small town on the Atlantic coast which had attracted artists since the days when Winslow Homer painted there. Encouraged by his fellow art student and future wife Josephine Nivison, Hopper started using watercolors. While other artists were painting picturesque coastal scenes, Hopper focused on the ornate Victorian mansions built by rich sea captains in the nineteenth century. The Mansard Roof depicts one such rambling mansion which still exists today. Hopper is both accurate in all his architectural details and engagingly abstract in his converting of the substantial building into a pattern of light and shadow.

The art cognoscenti of Hopper's day were drawn to the new modernist skyscrapers or to the classical measure of colonial architecture, and found the Victorian style (or Second Empire style, as in House by the Railroad) "hideous." These nineteenth-century buildings were viewed by left-wing modernists as symptomatic of the vulgar deficiencies of the gilded age culture that produced them. But Hopper loved this kind of vernacular architecture, and in his "masculine independence" he stood almost alone among serious artists of his day in painting them. The Mansard Roof, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 where it won a prize and was purchased by the institution, declared Hopper's independence of prevailing fashion.

As a result of a few big sales, Hopper was able to buy his first automobile, a used 1925 Dodge. The new auto meant that he and his new wife could seek out new subject matter using the car as kind of studio on wheels. Liberated in this fashion to explore the open road the Hoppers drove through New England, discovering the village of Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In due course they adopted this location as their summer headquarters, in 1927. Fellow artists were nearby but had not yet discovered the spot, and Hopper remained aloof from them. It was here that Hopper started painting lighthouses, another subject which no one seems to have thought worth painting before him.

Critics soon began describing these utilitarian structures as unattractive, while admiring the artist's ability to transform them into beautiful images. In the most romantic of his Maine paintings, Lighthouse Hill, Hopper chooses the late afternoon when the sun makes long shadows on the grass, also creating an abrupt contrast between the light on the buildings and the darkness elsewhere. The well-defined forms of the building are contrasted with the bareness of the natural surroundings, inducing a mood of wonder and reflection in the viewer.

Back in New York for the winter, Hopper was living in an apartment in Greenwich Village, and it's worth noting that many of his painting depict scenes from his own neighborhood. Nighthawks, for example, is based on a long-forgotten all-night diner at Greenwich and 7th Avenue. Hopper's New York City was not the one celebrated in the art and literature of the twenties. He had no interest in the principal pictorial motifs of the Jazz Age, the skyscraper and the machine, or in their potential as symbols for the commerce, capitalism and power which had overtaken America. As he had done in Gloucester, Hopper found his subjects in the vernacular architecture of the city. He was drawn to the unexceptional and familiar buildings of the nineteenth century, as in Williamsburg Bridge. He used these structures both as backdrops for his quiet human drama and as dramatic actors in their own right who could dominate the scene.

It must be stressed that Hopper and his wife did not turn their backs on the twentieth century. They loved theater- and movie-going. It is no accident, then, that Hopper approached the composition of his mature works, such as Chop Suey, Early Sunday Morning, New York Movie, Room in New York and Nighthawks, as a theatrical director might set the scene of a play. The specific mise-en-scène might be a lunch counter or filling station at night or a hotel room early in the morning. Although Hopper spoke disparagingly of it, his commercial work had taught him to compose images with an implicit story line. He included just enough detail to tempt the viewers to devise a narrative of their own.

Yet these very story-telling details are minimized in the context of Hopper's broad optical contrasts, designed to secure maximum emotional power from a relatively small number of visual elements. Hopper presents these scenes in such a way that the pictorial drama is constituted almost entirely by the play of light and shadow across the canvas. It is Hopper's skill in shifting the center of expressive gravity, away from the directly anecdotal and onto the more purely visual drama of light and shadows, that elevates his art above the simple theatricality of the American Scene painters or Norman Rockwell.

"Hopper is always on the verge of telling a story," observed John Updike. If so what's the story? Hopper, as I've said before, was famously close-lipped about the meaning of his work. The first great essay about Hopper, by Alfred Barr, dates from the 1930s. Interestingly enough from our perspective today, Barr never uses the word loneliness in connection with Hopper's work. Rather he talks about Hopper as painter of light and architecture. But today Hopper is popularly thought of as a painter of loneliness. What might explain this shift in interpretation is the appearance of David Riesman's groundbreaking book The Lonely Crowd in 1950. This was a remarkable book on the American psyche that attempted to document the tension between our consumer-oriented, economically ambitious and increasingly prosperous culture and the human and spiritual doubts which are obscured by the power and wealth such a culture produces. The ideas and terminology of Riesman's book soon began to appear in connection with commentary on Hopper's work. Riesman's idea of the deep and abiding loneliness at the heart of the urban dynamo seemed to fit the vision at the core of Hopper's work perfectly. In the decades since Riesman's book was published, commentators have tended to describe Hopper as the man who made The Lonely Crowd visible. But although this connection between Hopper and the twentieth-century American experience of urban alienation and isolation was understandable in the light of some of his chosen subject matter, the artist himself did not wish it to dominate his reputation. "The loneliness thing is overdone" he once commented dryly. As curator Carol Troyen points out in her podcast and catalogue essay, Hopper is perhaps best seen as the painter of solitude and serenity.

More troubling to Hopper's career was a new style of painting on the rise even as New York was coming to dominate the world of art. The notion of "pure painting" independent of life or nature, as practiced by Jackson Pollock, was gaining a foothold in the most avant-garde circles. The brilliantly ferocious champion of Pollock, Clement Greenberg, dismissed Hopper's methods as "second-hand, shabby, and impersonal," and thought him "simply... a bad painter." But for his part, Hopper would remain steadfast in his commitment to realism. Where Hopper's sentiments truly lay is indicated by the pleasure he expressed on learning that the film director Alfred Hitchcock had said in various interviews that his later films Rear Window and Psycho were to some extent inspired by the painter's work.

In 1963, four years before his death, Hopper painted a picture that could serve as his final testament. Sun in an Empty Room is one of his most mysterious and beautiful works (and surely an inspiration for Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series). It takes the form of a breathtaking recapitulation of the themes and concerns that had emerged throughout his career. This late painting is evocative of his earliest conception of a figure in a sunlit room as seen in Summer Interior. The painting shows a room which is either not yet occupied or perhaps recently vacated, we cannot tell for sure. But given Hopper's age at the time, most likely it is a room recently left empty. When asked what he was after in the painting, Hopper responded, "I'm after ME." At bottom, Hopper's obsession with painting light on the side of a house was at the same time an obsession with trying to represent his own inner light on canvas.

In one of his few programmatic essays on art, written early in his career, Hopper quotes from an author and an essay he loved throughout his life: Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self Reliance. "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." Hopper's adoption of the outmoded, the unexceptional, the stark and the seemingly uninteresting in terms of subject matter enabled him to record the compelling tension between the Victorian world of his childhood and the uncertain modern world that had arisen since. One can conceive of Hopper's "contrarianism" in this context as a reflection of his Emersonian philosophy. He was seeking to make the "great refusal" in art that Emerson had made in letters. He had to reject "pure painting" and so many of the demands of "progress" and "fashion" in order to produce an art that would reflect his immersion in life as it is lived and nature as it is experienced first-hand.


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Edward Hopper at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. runs from September 16, 2007 through January 21, 2008. Traveling to the Art Institute of Chicago, February 16 through May 11, 2008

The 264-page, well illustrated exhibition catalogue, with 170 color and 15 black-and-white illustrations, includes several fascinating essays by exhibition co-curators Carol Troyen, the Kristin and Roger Servison curator of paintings, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Judith Barter, the Field-McCormick Chair of American Art at The Art Institute of Chicago, and others. The catalogue $45 (soft cover) and $65 (hardcover).

The National Gallery's Edward Hopper mini-site boasts a Flash web feature contain in-depth studies of several of Hopper's works, an exhibition brochure, clips from the Gallery's film and a video podcast

Also of interest is this 2002 NPR program on Nighthawks that includes short excerpts of interviews with Hopper from the 1950s.

Artists mentioned in the article:


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