It comes as no surprise to the art world that the recent Hopper Exhibition at the Tate Modern was an outstanding success. Harry Whittaker wrote this review while the exhibition was on.
Although most of his work is distinctly American in context it has widespread appeal throughout Europe. Let’s take a walk through the exhibition and view some of his paintings. We will notice that none of the people in Hopper’s paintings seem capable of smiling; their expressions are stoic, even gloomy at times. There is one notable exception: ‘SOUTH CAROLINA MORNING’, (1955). This painting shows a black woman standing at a doorway wearing a red dress and hat. There is an air of defiance about her posture as she stands there looking straight at you with her arms folded and her head tilted back. There she is in the Deep South and she seems to be saying ‘Yes, I'm black, and I'm proud of it’. When asked if his paintings depicted the loneliness and alienation of the individual caused by modern civilization he replied “Yes, there is that, but my paintings are about whatever the viewer sees in them”.
We now enter Room One. Here we see his earliest works, from 1902 to 1906. These include a self-portrait and ‘STAIRWAY at 48 RUE De LILLE’. This is a stairway in the house where he lived during his first visit to Paris, and we can see that the young Hopper has already developed considerable skill as an artist. Also on display in this room is ‘SOLITARY FIGURE in a THEATRE’. This is an early indication of Hopper’s great love for the theatre and cinema. Hopper was greatly influenced by cinema and vice versa. His images of brooding silence and solitude have been likened to scenes from film noir, indeed one might justifiably say Hopper is film noir on canvas.
Here we see the influence of European art on Hopper’s early work; take a look at ‘NEW YORK INTERIOR’ (1921). A girl sits in a room with her back turned towards us, she seems to be concentrating on mending her dress. One can’t help but notice the style of Degas in this painting. In the etching ‘EVENING WIND’ (1921) he seems to be experimenting with the effect of light from windows on his subjects and the stark contrasts between light and shade. This can be seen again in ‘GIRL at a SEWING MACHINE’. This was to become a predominant factor in his work.
On to room three and we see an example of the type of painting that is likened to film noir, (AUTOMAT) 1927. A woman sits alone in a sparse, cheerless cafe, the ceiling lights reflected in the big window glass behind her stretch out into the inhospitable black night as she nurses her coffee. The empty chair at her table seems to emphasize her solitude as she sits there alone with her thoughts. What is she thinking about? It’s 1927 and unemployment is rising in America; perhaps she’s out of work, perhaps she’s waiting for a train to take her to some other town where she might have better luck. Or perhaps there is some tragedy in her past which is still haunting the mind of this sorrowful, solitary figure. This is what intrigues and fascinates us in Hopper’s paintings; there is always something going on, some mysterious psychological undercurrent which keeps us wondering what the story behind the picture is, and we are left to guess for ourselves. “My paintings are what the viewer sees in them”.
‘SUNDAY’ is another example of this. A man sits on the sidewalk on a bright Sunny morning, the empty lifeless windows in the building behind him give the place the appearance of a ghost town. We get the impression that his life too is empty and meaningless as he stares vacantly across the street. He seems to be thinking “Is this all there is, is this as good as it gets?”
‘NIGHT WINDOWS’ (1928) reminds us of Hopper’s preoccupation with windows. We are on the outside looking in through the apartment windows in this voyeuristic scene which Hopper says is a composite of many glimpsed through the windows of a passing train. We cannot leave room three without taking a look at ‘DRUGSTORE’ (1927). It is night and the only light in the streets comes from the small corner drugstore, Silber’s Pharmacy. Hopper loved painting ordinary everyday things and perhaps what drew him to this subject was the contrast between the orderly display of old fashioned chemist bottles, jars and the usual goods for sale, and the almost crudely designed advertisement for a well known laxative at the top of the window which look so out of place in this quaint little shop.
The pictures in this room transport us to Cape Cod, where Hopper spent many a happy summer painting landscapes, seascapes, houses and lighthouses. Also, in ‘LIGHTHOUSE HILL’, (1927) we see an early example of a growing theme in Hopper’s work; the symbolic boundary between nature and civilization. The lighthouse looks like a lonely outpost at the limits of man’s encroachment upon nature, while the undulating hills in the foreground appear like rolling waves, getting ready to engulf the lighthouse and reclaim the territory stolen from it by man. This was to be a recurring theme in many of Hopper’s works. He enjoyed painting lighthouses, with their connotations of loneliness and isolation. His wife once said “Those lighthouses are self portraits”. Also displayed in this room is ‘BURLY COBB’s HOUSE’. (1930/33) He rented this house when he stayed in Cape Cod during the summer of 1930.
This room is dedicated to ‘OFFICE at Night’, (1940), another picture that tells a story. But what is the story? Again the viewer must decide for himself. There is a lot of sexual tension in this scene. A man is seated at his desk, engrossed in his work and oblivious to the woman, probably his secretary, standing by the filing cabinet. But her eyes are fixed on him. What is she thinking as she stands there looking provocative in her tight fitting dress? Does she love him? Is she perhaps having an affair with him? And what is the significance of that piece of paper lying on the floor by the side of the desk? Whatever’s going on between them they both give the impression of being troubled and isolated. Film noir again.
The two most striking paintings here are ‘CAPE COD EVENING’ (1939) and ‘EARLY SUNDAY MORNING’ (1930). Let us deal with ‘Cape Cod Evening’ first. There is an eerie, strange atmospheric quality in this painting; a man sits on his doorstep, trying to catch the attention of his dog, while a woman stands a few feet away watching him with her arms folded. There seems to be no sense of togetherness between them and even the dog ignores his master as he stands in the field in front of the house staring at something outside of the picture which the humans cannot detect. The house is located right at the edge of a forest, so close the trees are almost touching it. The forest is dark, deep, and menacing, while the uncut grass in the field on which the house stands looks as if it is about to join forces with the trees in engulfing the house and the unsuspecting humans who live in it. This is a prime example of the theme of the contrast and conflict between man and nature.
In ‘Early Sunday Morning’ is another classic Hopper theme; deserted streets and an atmosphere of gloom. We are looking across the street at a row of shops topped by a single storey of brown bricked building. Some of the upper windows show half drawn yellow blinds, but the shopfronts below look dull and cheerless, the only bright feature being the vertical candy striped barber’s pole to the right of centre in the picture. Hopper did contemplate including a human figure at one of the windows but changed his mind. Despite the fact that it is a bright sunlit morning with the early morning sun casting its long shadows on the sidewalk, we get the feeling that we are in a lonely street in a lonely town.
Room seven is dedicated entirely to ‘NIGHTHAWKS’. If Hopper had painted nothing else in his life this work alone would have made him famous. Painted in 1942, when America was in a state of tension after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is his most popular work, especially with the man in the street, and has captured the imagination of many acclaimed writers of crime fiction, including the top selling Michael Connelly (Black Echo, 1992 and Trunk Music, 1997) and Lawrence Block (Hit List, 2000). Erik Jendersen wrote a story called ‘Nighthawks’ in which the main character is taken from the painting. Now let us take a look at the picture. We are looking through the large windows of an all night bar. It is late at night and the streets are dark and deserted, illuminated only by the harsh glaring light coming from the bar. This same light shows us four people inside the bar, exposed to us through the clear glass window like fish in a tank. There is a couple seated at one end of the bar; a woman in a red dress who absentmindedly studies a book of matches she is holding in her right hand. She looks bored. The man beside her, reminiscent of some Bogart character wearing a fedora and with cigarette in hand, is lost in his own thoughts, yet another Hopper couple who are together but not together. At the other end of the bar, seated with his back to us, a solitary figure is hunched over the bar with nothing but his drink for company. Our fourth figure is the barman, behind the bar washing some glasses and wishing he could find a better way to make a living.
Hopper said he “...unconsciously, probably, was painting the loneliness of a large city.” There is something very sad and touchingly beautiful about this depiction of loneliness and isolation.
Perhaps the most noteworthy painting here is ‘SUMMERTIME’ (1943). A young woman stands on the bottom step of a stairway leading to the entrance of the house behind her. She wears a white, almost transparent dress and she rests her forearm against one of the columns on either side of the stairs. There is something slightly provocative about her stance; Hopper had the knack of making women who were dressed appear more erotic than his nudes. The building behind her also captures our interest; the entrance door is open and so is the window to her right, with its white curtain billowing inwards with the breeze. This is another painting with an implicit narrative, and once again we can only guess at the story. Why is she waiting there, does she have a rendezvous with her sweetheart? Or perhaps she is merely a hooker trying to drum up some business, who knows? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.
Another picture on show here is ‘DAWN in PENNSYLVANIA’. We are inside a railway station as the cold grey light of dawn heralds another day. The rear coach of a train, partly hidden by a wide column, occupies the left side of the painting while a trolley occupies the right. The background is taken up with factory buildings. Just one of the ordinary everyday subjects he liked to depict.
‘SEA WATCHERS’ (1952). Once again we have two people who apparently were once close but who have now drifted apart and are unable to communicate with each other. They seem resigned but uncomfortable in each other’s company. Hopper uses light and shadow to good effect in giving added depth to this scene. ‘HOTEL by a RAILROAD’ is in similar vein. A couple are sharing a cheap hotel room but seem to be unaware of each other’s existence. She sits in an armchair reading a book while he stands before the window, cigarette in hand, surveying the bleak scene outside. The scene outside is a railtrack with the dull windowless rear of a building in the background. The couple look as if they are on the way down, worn out and tired of life and each other. Hoppers world is populated by sad, lonely people.
In ‘CAPE COD MORNING’ (1950) we again see Hoppers theme of life on the borderline between civilization and nature. A section of a house takes up the left side of the picture. A woman stares anxiously out of a bay window, she appears tense. On the right of the picture we see the forest, close and menacing. Once again, as in ‘Cape-Cod Evening’, the trees look as if they are threatening to advance and swallow up the house and it’s inhabitants, reclaiming for nature that which has been stolen from it.
‘HOTEL WINDOW (1956). A well dressed woman sits on a sofa in a hotel foyer. She looks uncomfortable as she perches sideways on the sofa so that she can see out of the window into the dark unlit street. Who is she looking for? Is it simply a friend, or her husband perhaps? Or maybe it’s her lover, she could be having an illicit affair. It’s film noir time again.
‘OFFICE in a SMALL CITY’ (1953). A man seated at his desk looks out of the window, not merely to the rooftop of the building across the street, but to the life beyond that, the life he is missing because he is enslaved by his mundane job. He is trapped, imprisoned, doomed to look out at the wider world like a goldfish trapped in its bowl.
In ‘A WOMAN in the SUN’ a nude woman stands by her unmade bed, cigarette in hand. Spotlighted by a narrow strip of sunlight from the window she faces. She seems to be wondering what the day will bring. In ‘MORNING SUN’ a woman sits on her bed facing a window and looking rather pensive. She is wearing a slip and her arms are folded across her naked shins. The sunlight from the window we see is shining on the interior wall in the background, while the light shining on the woman comes from an unseen window. The effect of sunlight coming into a room through windows is a common feature of Hopper’s paintings.
In ‘ROOM by the SEA’ we again see Hopper’s fondness for showing the effect of sunlight, this time through a wide open door onto the floor and an interior wall, and also through an unseen window onto the wall of a partly seen adjacent room. He acknowledged this preoccupation when he said ‘Maybe I'm not very human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house’. He also expressed his desire to paint both ‘...what’s inside and what’s outside’, and most of his interior paintings include a view through a window to the world outside, just as many of his exterior scenes give us a view into a house, office, cafe etc. In this picture we have a view through the open door of the blue summer sky and the deeper blue, deceptively calm sea. This brings us to another of his recurring themes which is included in this work; the ongoing conflict between man and nature. There is no terra firma to be seen, the sea stretches from the far horizon right to the very doorstep, and it seems to be saying to the house ‘One day my waves will rise and drag you to the very depths of the ocean’. This picture was painted in 1951.
In ‘NEW YORK OFFICE’ we are on the outside looking in. We are looking across the street into a large office window at the corner of the building opposite, and our eyes are immediately drawn to the woman standing at her desk by the window. She is highlighted by the bright sunlight beating down on the building as she studies the letter in her hand. She exudes that quiet, provocative eroticism that is often seen in Hopper’s women. The adjacent building is in deep shadow and looks deserted, almost derelict. We wonder what is in the letter she is concentrating on; is it to do with her work, or is it a personal letter containing bad news? This picture was painted in 1962, near the end of his career.
‘TWO COMEDIANS’ (1965), is his last painting. He and Jo are dressed in Pierrot and Columbine costumes, standing on stage taking their final bow with the curtain closed behind them. ‘Art is life, and my life is art, but now the curtain falls and alas the show is over. Goodbye my friends, goodbye’.
No artist has had as great an impact on American culture as Edward Hopper. He strongly influenced the modernist/new realist painters, but he belonged to no school, he was in a class of his own. He painted landscapes, seascapes, everyday urban scenes, lonely empty houses, and lonely isolated people. There is a mood of melancholy about Hopper’s people that makes us feel uneasy. His early work was influenced by French impressionism, as can be seen in ‘Le Font des Arts’ 1907, and ‘The Louvre in a Thunderstorm’ 1909. Then his work began to evolve; compare his early works with ‘Blackhead Monhegan’ 1916/19, and ‘Reclining Nude’ 1924/27. In these two paintings his colours are stronger and more clearly defined as he develops his own style.
A recurrent theme of his work is the conflict between man and nature. In ‘Cape A Cod Evening’ there is an eerie, sinister atmosphere as the dog stares at some unseen, imminent danger, something his master is unaware of, while the dark, menacing forest threatens to advance and engulf the house and it’s inhabitants. A similar atmosphere of menace is evoked by ‘Cape Cod Morning’. Perhaps the best example is ‘Gas’, depicting a small isolated petrol station situated at the edge of a dark forest at nightfall, looking like the last outpost of civilization. A road reaches into the depths of the forest, which seems to be saying ‘Enter here traveller, if you dare’.
Another characteristic of his work was his emphatic use of light and shade to create mood, to illuminate his nudes, and to dramatize architecture. But the main theme depicted in most of his work is the all-pervading loneliness which seems to envelope most of his characters. Lonely houses, lonely streets, lonely people dominates his work. He painted the world as he perceived it and his work continues to grow in popularity, influencing film makers (Norman Bates’ house in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was inspired by one of his paintings) and writers throughout America and Europe. More than a score of authors have included him in their books in recent years.
But no other painter has been so popular with the man in the street. Perhaps they instinctively see in the lonely men and women Hopper portrays the desolation inflicted upon human morale by the constant, grinding struggle for survival in this pitiless capitalist society.
Edward Hopper: A Brief Biography
Edward Hopper was born in the small town of Nyack, forty miles north of New York City, on 22nd July, 1882. After studying commercial illustration for two years he decided to study painting at the New York School of Art (1900-1906). After completing his studies he went to Europe, visiting England, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, but spending most of his time in Paris. On returning to New York he found work as a commercial artist, painting in his free time. In 1908 he, along with other pupils of his old teacher Robert Henri, held an exhibition of artwork at the Harmonic Club, New York. Thus began an artistic career that was to span six decades.
He visited Europe twice more, spending most of his time in France and Spain, then returned to America to resume his painting in Massachusetts, and later, Maine. He had one oil painting, ‘SAILING’, exhibited at the notorious Armory Show which first introduced modern art to the American public in 1913. In Catherine M. Rae’s novel ‘Sarah Cobb’ the characters agree that it was one of the finest paintings there. In 1920 he held his first one man show Paris oils at Whitney Studio Club, where he also exhibited caricatures in 1922. In 1923, the same year that he began painting watercolours, he received the Chicago Society of Etchers Logan Prize; he had produced about fifty plates since 1915.
On July 19th, 1924, he married Josephine (Jo) Nivison, a talented but not very successful artist. They were two very different personalities. Hopper was a quiet, introverted but good-humoured man who did not waste words. Once, when given a prestigious award, he made the shortest acceptance speech in history: he stood before his admiring audience, said “Thanks”, then walked away. You don’ get any more taciturn than that. Jo, on the other hand, was a competitive, energetic woman who couldn’t stop talking and couldn’t sit still for five minutes. It must have rankled her to live in her husband’s shadow, but she was devoted to him and supported him throughout his career. After they wed, at her insistence, she was the only female model he ever used. His career was beginning to take off now and he could afford to give up his detested job as a commercial illustrator and concentrate on his painting.
In the next five years his work was shown at the Museum of Modem Art, the Rhen Gallery, New York (three times), and also in Boston, Hartford, and Rockland, Maine. The Hoppers never gave up their New York apartment but they liked to spend their summers in Cape Cod, and in 1933 they had a house built there, in South Truro. It was in November of this year that a retrospective of his work was shown at the Museum of Modem Art, New York. It was shown again in January, 1934, at The Arts Club of Chicago. His increasing wealth and fame did not go to his head. He and Jo continued to live in their New York apartment and their Cape Cod home although they could have afforded a much grander life style.
The following ten tears proved eventful: he was at the height of his artistic powers and was awarded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Temple Gold Medal, The Purchase Prize in Watercolour, the first W.A. Clark Prize, The Corcoran Gold Medal, and the Ada S. Garret Prize. He also, in 1942, painted ‘NIGHTHAWKS’. If he had never painted anything else in his life this painting alone would have made him famous. In 1945 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1950 his work was displayed in the Whitney Museum of American Art, then later the same year in Boston and Detroit. In the following years his success and reputation continued to grow and honours and recognition continued to be heaped upon him, culminating in a major retrospective of his work in New York in 1964 which was a triumphant success with critics and public alike.
But Hopper was getting old now, and his health was fading. His posture was so badly stooped that Jo commented “I married a man who was over six feet four inches tall, now he walks on all fours.” In 1965 he produced his last painting, ‘TWO COMEDIANS’. The comedians were younger versions of himself and Jo, dressed in Pierrot costumes and taking their final bow on stage before a closed curtain.
Edward Hopper died on May 15th, 1967. Jo died within a year of him. They had no children.