Art Review: Edward Hopper & His Time

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Edward Hopper
Seeking Solitude in
Modern Times

Edward Hopper, Self Portrait (1925-1930, oil on canvas, 25-1/4″ x 20-5/8″), Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper.

A museum goer could easily miss it, tucked away in an alcove, the glass-enclosed wall display of two rows of photographs spanning more than fifty years of Edward Hopper’s life: at 21 in the New York Studio School, drawing the nude male model in Robert Henri’s class–fertile ground for the Ashcan School; sketching in Paris around the same time; years later, working on a watercolor of a Maine lighthouse; the older Hopper with his wife Josephine, whom he married at 42; his now older hands, etching; and at 76, sitting near the coal stove in his studio of many years, looking serious if not downright glum.

These pictures of Hopper belong to a cache of over 3,000 items bequeathed, upon the death of his wife, to the Whitney Museum of American Art months after the artist died in 1967.  Since its founding as the Whitney Studio (and then Club) by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1914, the museum has provided financial support and exhibition opportunities to a host of home-grown artists, including Hopper, and currently boasts a collection of American art the extent of which becomes apparent as one wanders around the exhibit, Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, and thumbs through the accompanying catalog.

Charles Demuth, My Egypt (1927, oil and graphite pencil on fiberboard, 35-3/4″ x 30″). Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

The third venue for a show originally conceived as “a broad survey of American art from 1900-1950 that featured both realist and modernist artists…designed as an introduction for European audiences to American art of this period,”1 the Whitney decided to use its turn to focus “on the realist works that depicted modern life, both urban and rural, while also highlighting the artistic relationships that were most formative for Hopper…”2 On this side of the Atlantic, viewers enjoyed twenty more Hoppers (for a total of 32) as well as additional scholarship attempting to link Hopper’s art with that of his compatriots.

A quick walk-through of the exhibit, however, reveals that Edward Hopper operated in a universe all his own.  Part of a group of urban-based artists who depicted city and factory views, folks at work and play, and other topics of life in the then new twentieth century, he labored from a deeply personal place.

The artist must have found validation in a Goethe quote he carried throughout his life:

The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me.3

Expanding on that, Hopper commented:

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.  No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.4

Perhaps because the creative experience required encounters with his unconscious, Hopper often found himself stymied in his efforts to produce.

I wish I could paint more.  I get sick of reading and going to the movies.  I’d rather be painting all the time, but I don’t have the impulse.  Of course I do dozens of sketches for oils–just a few lines on yellow typewriter paper–and then I almost always burn them.5

Nevertheless, and much to posterity’s benefit, many sketches did survive to become paintings, more than enough to provide an ample selection for the Whitney’s Modern Times exhibit and to be included in collections throughout the world.

In the show, a few early paintings by Hopper lack the skill so apparent in work a decade later.  In Tugboat with Black Smokestack (1908) and Queensborough Bridge (1913), the subject matter generates more interest than the draftsmanship, composition, palette or paint handling, highlights of the artist’s mature work.

Though Hopper might not have yet developed his facility with the brush, a psychologically insightful composition rendered in conté crayon and opaque watercolor, Untitled (the Railroad) (1906-7), demonstrated that he could certainly draw.  Peopling a bustling train station with an assortment of types performing a variety of actions, the artist focused attention on an unhappy looking child tagging along behind a woman, perhaps the mother, while a well-dress man boards the train.

Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu (1914, oil on canvas, 36″ x 72″). Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

With Soir Blue (1914), perhaps inspired by what he had seen on his three trips to Paris between 1906 and 1910, Hopper discovers the emotionally compelling world of color.  At a terrace café, six individuals occupy tables while a woman with a painted face and low-cut dress stands erect in the background.  Each distinctively pictured, as though a portrait of a personality the viewer should know–Manet (or Courbet) on the right?  Van Gogh with the red beard?–none interacts with another, foreshadowing the isolation of the actors in Hopper’s later scenes.

In the primary-colored world of Railroad Crossing (1922-23), the wind, evident in the solitary tree in the foreground, sweeps over a diagonal road that leads the eye to the eponymous crossing.  Barely noticeable in the shadow of a yellow house with blue roof and red chimney, a figure of a woman introduces an indeterminate narrative.  The house, centrally located and flanked by two telegraph poles, has no visible neighbors.

Not surprising then that Hopper admired the art of, and became good friends with, Charles Burchfield,6 another realist whose work evolved into idiosyncratic depictions of town and country views devoid of human presence, like the two desolate winter street scenes included in the show.  Each artist wrote about the other over the course of their lives.

Edward Hopper, Seven A. M. (1948, oil on canvas, 30-3/16″ x 40-1/8″). Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase and exchange, ©Whitney Museum of American Art.

Absent inhabitants, classics like Railroad Sunset (1929), Early Sunday Morning (1930). and Seven A.M. (1948) imply an observer wandering alone while others gather elsewhere.

Edward Hopper, New York Interior (ca. 1921, oil on canvas, 24-1/4 x 29-1/4). Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Edward Hopper, South Carolina Morning (1955, oil on canvas, 30-9/16" x 40-1/4"). Whitney Museum of American Art, given in memory of Otto L. Spaeth by his Family, ©Whitney Museum of American Art.

Paintings by Hopper that do include figures, like New York Interior (1921), Night Windows (1928), Gas (1940), South Carolina Morning (1955), and A Woman in the Sun (1961)–all in the show–come upon subjects engaged in solitary activities, oblivious to the onlooker who keenly watches them.

In searching for the perfect image to depict the ephemeral intersection of psyche and experience–reality filtered through the soul–Hopper found himself peering into the private moments of others and wandering around unpopulated locations.  In the cacophony of modern times, he sought and perhaps finally found the freedom of existence inherent in solitude.
1 Sasha Nicholas, co-curator, in a communication from the Whitney’s press office.

2 Ibid.

3 Quoted by Peter Findlay in Edward Hopper: The Capezzera Drawings, 2005, 2.

4 Ibid, 22.

5 Ibid, 14.

6 Barbara Haskell in Modern Life.  Edward Hopper and His Time, 2010, 49.

Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue (at 75th Street)
New York, NY 10021
(212) 570-3600

Catalog available.