In engaging the American scenes of the 1920’s through the 1960’s depicted in the paintings of Edward Hooper, I’ve come to see that it is the buildings themselves that are the eyes into the soul of the asylum of loneliness of his works. The cold silenced personages that inhabit only their own realm within his pictures are certain reflections of American life at its most detached and alone. Each window is a set of eyes unto itself. It is the buildings themselves that frame the views we have of the array of human character studies that inhabit Hooper’s often dramatically colored pictorial universe. It is the buildings walls that enframe their inhabitants. It is the buildings windows that offer the privileged if somber and sometimes secret happenstance fleeting views. Hopper depicts those special moments when we can be alone even when we are with partners, lovers, family or friends. He portrays the moments of solitude when we are alone with only our own realities that we must face when the constant beat of daily existence slows down to a single raindrop on our foreheads. Hopper often uses luxurious local color to show his characters introspective interior lives as separated from the larger scenes of daily everyday life he envisioned on canvas. He is especially sensitive to the varieties of color of light and the way light can be lifted into brilliance by the stark enhancement of shadows. His melding of the American vernacular and architectural scenes with a high modernist aesthetic vision is what makes the best of his art so magical and sublime. The paintings can often be technicolor marvels that are as refined in their use of color as Degas or Matisse.
Below I’ve excerpted a handful of illuminating texts and to be read while viewing the images of Hopper’s paintings I’ve collected for this post.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
“It took me twenty years to recover from Paris.”
“…if Hopper attacked the American dream he did it in a less obvious but all the more devastating way: in defying the dream’s value itself, its sense and power to satisfy any longing. The emptiness in these pictures is both the emptiness of success and the emptiness of a continent that once seemed endless. Hopper did not care in the slightest about the moving masses, about the energy contemporary photographers captured in New York’s popular quarters. He has often been referred to as an American painter, and he most truly was. His works show almost exclusively New York and the East Coast, but in a tranquil version, stripped of all dynamics. And his chosen few represent a class, he portrayed the upper class he was born into himself, or to use a more suitable term: the establishment.” – Julia Collier 125magazine.com
“Hopper bought his first car in 1927 and drove out on an exploratory road trip. He went all over America to observe and paint life in his country and transformed his car into a genuine mobile studio. The exhibition closes with his ultimate painting: “Two Comedians” (1966). The subjects taking a bow represent the artist himself and his wife Josephine, who was his only muse and model. He had always wanted to become an architect and this aspect prevails in his work through his famous geometric figures, horizontal and vertical lines.”– Julia Collier 125magazine.com
Edward Hopper: A Surprise Star in France
Hopper “doesn’t belong to the small group of artists well known by the general public, like Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin or Frida Kahlo,” said Mr. Ottinger at his office, opposite the Centre Pompidou.
Moreover, “only one or two of his paintings are well known, like ‘Nighthawks’ or ‘House by the Railroad,’ ” Mr. Ottinger notes, “and yet we have a blockbuster show on our hands.”
Mr. Ottinger acknowledges that the appeal of Hopper’s work isn’t immediately obvious in a country which has tended to be snooty about American realist art. Abstract work by the likes of Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, whose roots go back to French avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp and Georges Braque, has tended to be more highly regarded
The curator attributes Hopper’s appeal today to several factors, including the universality of American culture.
10 October 2012 – 3 February 2013
by Curator Didier Ottinger, assistant director of the MNAM – Centre Pompidou (excerpts)
“Hopper entered Robert Henri’s studio at the New York School of Art in the early years of the twentieth century. Henri was a colourful figure; in 1908, he founded the Ashcan School, whose very name was a statement of the uncompromising realism of its most radical members.”
“Hopper’s time in Paris (nearly a year in 1906, followed by shorter stays in 1909 and 1910) offers an opportunity to compare his paintings with those he saw in the city’s galleries and salons. Degas inspired him to take original angles and apply the poetic principle of dramatisation. The massive structure of his views of the quays of the Seine was borrowed from Albert Marquet. He shared with Félix Vallotton a taste for light inspired by Vermeer. Walter Sickert was his model for the iconography of theatres and paintings of damned flesh. In Paris, Hopper adopted the style of Impressionism, a technique which he felt had been invented to express harmony and sensual pleasure; Back in the United States he absorbed the gritty realism of Bellows or Sloan, that of the Ashcan School, whose dystopic vision he shared. He earned his living doing commercial illustrations, which will be presented in the Paris exhibition. But it was his etchings (from 1915) that brought about a metamorphosis in his work and crystallized his painting, as he put it. One room in the exhibition is devoted to his etchings.”
Ford Lane Road by Edward Hopper
“1924 was a turning point in Hopper’s life and career. The exhibition of his watercolours of neo-Victorian houses in Gloucester, in the Brooklyn Museum and then in Franck Rehn’s gallery, brought him recognition and commercial success which enabled him to work full time on his art (he had previously sold only one painting, at the Armory Show in 1913).”
“The complexity of Hopper’s oeuvre puts it at the intersection of the two historical definitions of American modernity: one derived from the Ashcan School which claimed the Baudelairian principle of modernity linked to the subject, and the other taken from the lessons of the Armory Show which, in 1913, revealed the formalism of European avant-gardes (cubism and cubist futurism) to the American public. In the fifties, the surreal strangeness, and “metaphysical” dimension of Hopper’s painting led to comparisons with De Chirico. At the same time, in the columns of the magazine Reality, the painter joined American realist artists in denouncing abstract art, which, in their view, was submerging collections and museums.”
Didier Ottinger, assistant director of the MNAM – Centre Pompidou.
“Hopper bought his first car in 1927 and drove out on an exploratory road trip. He went all over America to observe and paint life in his country and transformed his car into a genuine mobile studio. The exhibition closes with his ultimate painting: “Two Comedians” (1966). The subjects taking a bow represent the artist himself and his wife Josephine, who was his only muse and model.”
“The Sheridan Theater” (1937)
American or Artist?
In defining Edward Hopper as the quintessential American artist, we’ve lost the artist himself. (excerpts)
By James Polchin/Drexel University -The Smart set magazine
“We can easily forget that much of what we admire about Hopper’s work today was done later in his life. The MoMa show in 1933 was mounted just before the artist’s 50th birthday. Between his art school education at the turn of the century, to the early 1930s, Hopper had worked as a magazine illustrator (the covers are projected in large colorful slides in one gallery), he experimented with etching (many are on display here), and worked for a time with watercolors. A small collection of these watercolors are presented here illuminating his delicate skill with the medium, crafting scenes as stark and quiet as his later works, each absent of people with hints of voyeurism. He exhibited and sold a painting in the famous Armory Show in the spring of 1913 in New York that brought European modernist works to New York — most famously symbolized in Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912). Such a diversity of experiences makes it difficult to know where to start the story of Hopper, and where to located the origins of his aesthetics.”
Early Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper
“Perhaps we can start at the New York School of Art where Hopper studied between 1900 and 1906. There he was influenced by his teachers William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, who advocated a social realism that merged the values of late 19th century French painting with the particular subject matter of an increasingly urban America. “
“But perhaps the real start, as this show suggests, comes with his travels to Paris, between 1906 and 1910. In his stays in the city, he resisted the circle of expat artists and writers. He didn’t visit the well-known salon of Gertrude Stein on the Left Bank, to engage the conversations on modernism. He lived instead a kind of isolated life. Years later he recalled that he met with nobody in Paris: “I’d heard of Gertrude Stein, but I don’t remember having heard of Picasso at all. I used to go to the cafes at night and sit and watch.” Instead he spent his days at the Louvre learning “perspective from Degas,” as the gallery text tells us. He learned from Vermeer the use of light streaming through an open window. He enjoyed the simplicity of Albert Manquet’s river scenes, the outlines of trees and bridges pronounced through the use of light and shadows, the landscapes in details blurring into abstractions. This show confronts you with a number of Manquet’s works along with Degas and Pissarro that ask us to look at these works as crucial to how we might look at Hopper’s use of light and his compositions. It was the light of the city, and the ways painters like Monet made light the subject of the painting that most captivated Hopper. “The light was different from anything I had known,” he later recalled adding, “The shadows were luminous, more reflected light. Even under the bridges there was a certain luminosity.”
“Morning Sun” (1952)”
“House at Dusk” (1935)
“It may not have been paintings that had the most influence on Hopper, as this show asks us to consider the stark Parisian photographs of Eugène Atget taken just a few years before Hopper was in the city. These streetscapes linger with a haunting presence and absence, buildings standing quiet surrounded by empty streets. “Hopper was charmed by the metaphysical atmosphere” of these images the gallery text informs us, and you see such influence in what would become Hopper’s obsession: The solitude of public spaces. In this sense these photographs presented Hopper with scenes reduced to objects, to the shuttered windows, the wooden doors, and cobblestones streets. Atget’s photographs are paired with those of Mathew Brady’s post Civil War images of the South, echoing similar depleted landscapes of buildings and objects, illuminated by the camera’s pure shadows and light that intrigued Hopper from the 1930s on. These images are projected life-sized on a large white wall, like a film or a doorway, as if you could walk into any one scene and emerge on the other side.”
“The City” (1927)
“Room in New York” (1932)
“As the poet Mark Strand has recently noted, standing in front of a Hopper painting “is as if we were spectators at an event we were unable to name; we feel the presence of what is hidden, of what surely exists but is not revealed.”
I wonder if this too was something he learned in Paris, not from the paintings in the Louvre, but rather his wanderings along the streets and cafes of the city. If anything Hopper in Paris gives us a different insight into our idea of expatriate Paris in the early 20th century. Not everyone was having a party, or talking about modernism. Some wandered the city alone. In Paris, he explored an aesthetic of voyeurism and spectatorship that would become central to his paintings for the rest of his life. Hopper’s canvases present dramas without scripts, actions without stories, and scenes that are hauntingly more mental than material, turning these American scenes of solitude into alluring and enigmatic uncertainties. • 27 November 2012
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
© Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas ‘Conference at Night’
“What however was different was the use by Hopper of such almost clinical effects to establish the mood both of the space occupied by the subject in the painting and its projection outward of the painting. Here entered the mood, whether of individual alienation. Another typical characteristic was his treatment of windows, invariably depicted as open voids, without apparent glazing intervention against light. Such essential openings defy the technical reality of plate glass for most of Hopper’s own lifetime. Yet they enhance, in the urban context, the sense of innocent human vulnerability. The space enclosing the sitter whether interior or external, or both, might seem to be “freeze-dried”, void of activity other than the static being of the subject. Landscape is usually benign but neutral in effect, as is the sea where it occurs, even with the Atlantic swell of Cape Cod’s shoreline. And here clearly the ramifications of an open truly democratic American culture are readily apparent. This was never exactly to be something imported from Europe.” Published 27/11/12
by MICHAEL SPENS
Excursion into Philosophy by Edward Hopper
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles
Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in 1997 and his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1986. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. In 2010 he was named a United States Artists project artist. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Art in America, Art Slant and many other publications.
Soviet Space (2009) by Vincent Johnson