Edward Hopper
Biography of American Realist Artist, Urban Genre-Painter.
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Nighthawks (1942)
Art Institute of Chicago.
One of the Great 20th-Century Paintings.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Contents

Leading American Realist
Early Life
New York School of Art
Trips to Europe
Decade of Struggle
Recognition and Commercial Success
Later Exhibitions
A Guide to Hopper's Art
What is the Meaning of Hopper's Art?
Hopper's Painting Methods

For analysis of works by realist genre painters like Edward Hopper,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).



Chop Suey (1929)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Leading American Realist

The New York-born painter, illustrator and graphic artist Edward Hopper is one of the most recognizable and famous painters of America. Seen as one of the best genre painters, he is considered by art critics to be the most important American Realist of the 20th century. An admirer of the French classical Impressionist Edouard Manet, Hopper was influenced by both international Realism and the American Realistic idiom of the Ashcan School, although he developed his own quite independent style usually characterized as belonging to American Scene Painting. An acute observer of the vernacular urban architecture that frames his paintings, he has been famously pigeon-holed by David Riesman as a painter of loneliness - a characterization he himself disputed. He is perhaps better understood as a painter of ordinary people trying to make the best of life - a condition that necessarily involves a degree of solitude and serenity.


Automat (1927)
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines.


House by the Railroad (1925)
Museum of Modern Art.

Whatever his precise outlook, he remained steadfast in his realist approach, even when the new post-war American Abstraction movement made him appear old fashioned and out of touch. Indeed, if it is true that "every picture tells a story", one feels that Hopper's simple but unique genre-paintings will continue to be meaningful long after the intellectual modernism of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and later contemporary artists, has faded into history. Many of Hopper's paintings are available as prints in the form of poster art.

See also: American Art:1750-present. For other examples of 20th century American realism, see also Grant Wood (1892-1942) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). See also one of Hopper's shorter lived contemporaries George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925).

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For a list of painters like
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Early Life

He was born the only son of an established middle class family in the town of Nyack in New York State, a small yacht-building centre on the Hudson River, and the birthplace some 20 years later of the innovative calligraphic-style artist, Joseph Cornell (1903-72). Growing up in a strict Baptist household, Hopper developed an early talent for drawing, and by his teens he was familiar with many different media including watercolour painting, pen-and-ink, charcoal, and oil-paint. He worked from nature and also indoors, creating a number of self-portraits as well as political cartoons. Being cultured and well-read, his parents recognized and supported his artistic efforts from an early stage, keeping him supplied with materials and educational books. Even so, they steered him towards commercial illustration rather than fine art painting.

New York School of Art

Accordingly, in 1899, after graduating from high school, he began his art studies at the Correspondence School of Illustrating in New York City. However, the following year he transferred to the prestigious New York Institute of Art and Design in Manhattan (the Chase school), where he studied under two radically different teachers: William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), a disciple of the Impressionist John Singer Sargent (1856-1924) who instructed him in oil painting, and Robert Henri (1869-1929), one of the pioneers of American Realism, and the founder of the stark Ashcan School of realist painting, who taught the life class. According to one contemporary student: Chase promoted "art for art's sake", while Henri promoted "art for life's sake" advising pupils to "forget about art and paint what interests you in life". Hopper himself responded far more strongly to Henri's radical ideas, but still maintained a relatively independent and aloof approach. At the school, his talents were rewarded with numerous prizes. His earliest surviving oil painting with echoes of his later famous interiors was Solitary Figure in a Theater (c.1904). During his time at the school, he also completed dozens of nudes, portraits and figurative compositions, along with a range of still life and landscape pictures.

 

Trips to Europe

Hopper left art school after six years and spent most of the next two decades engaged in the routine drudgery of commercial art - doing cover designs for trade magazines, illustrations, advertisements and other types of graphics. Between 1906 and 1910 he went on three trips to Europe, each centred on Paris, in order to study the Old Masters, as well as the newly emerging styles of Expressionism and Cubism. But in fact, he remained almost completely untouched by the contemporary art scene and its fashionable painters, like Picasso. One of the few artists he did admire was Rembrandt, the Dutch Realist - not least for his unique treatment of light. One of Hopper's favourite pictures of Rembrandt was his seminal group portrait The Night Watch, which he described as "the most wonderful thing of his I have seen."

After his second trip, he painted Summer Interior (1909), a brooding, intimate work possibly derived from the more daring Interior, by Edgar Degas, it features the first use of a compositional device he would employ many times in the future - a patch of light intruding into the human world of a room. Other works containing this device include Excursion into Philosophy, A Woman in the Sun, and Rooms by the Sea. The treatment of light and colour, in particular its effect on the mood of the painting, would become a lifelong focus for Hopper.

In general, however the new abstract art left him cold. The only modern-era European artist he had time for was the morose French engraver Charles Meryon (1821-68), whose moody etchings of the medieval buildings of Paris became an important influence on the young American.

Decade of Struggle

After his third and final trip to Europe, Hopper rented a studio in New York City and resumed the daily grind of a graphic artist, soliciting business from magazine and book publishing companies as best he could. Meanwhile, despite the occasional burst of activity - like a 1912 trip to Massachusetts during which he painted his first lighthouse (Squam Light) - his oil painting generally languished, for want of inspiration. Also, after the rich cultural diversity of Paris, he continued to find Manhattan somewhat crude and unsophisticated.

In 1913, at the famous International Exhibition of Modern Art (better known as the Armory Show, for its venue at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York) the 31-year old Hopper sold his first painting, Sailing (1911). It would be a decade before his next real success. Meantime, he continued working on a variety of commercial projects including posters for a film company, the American war effort and other illustrations. Although Hopper regarded these activities as a depressive experience and an unwelcome distraction from his real art, many of them were important contributors to the formation of the Hopper style - a style heavy with narrative - which in many ways would become the definitive "illustration" of parts of America in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. There is a parallel here with Jack B Yeats, one of the most famous Irish artists, whose early career as an illustrator was a strong influence on his paintings, many of which were imbued with a clear "storyline". Shortly after the Armory Show, Hopper moved to Greenwich Village, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In 1915, Hopper turned from oil painting to etching, producing cityscapes of Paris and New York. This difficult medium, one which many painters (including Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Whistler and Hockney) have tried to master, gave Hopper the opportunity to display his outstanding drawing skills as well as his personal vision. It is in his prints that we first see the characteristic solitary figures, desolate city scenes, and Victorian architecture that populate his mature oil paintings. They also feature the typical Hopper-style contrasts of light and shadow in a modern version of Rembrandt's chiaroscuro. Moreover, since they had to be produced in a studio environment, they obliged Hopper to work from his imagination rather than direct observation, and thus helped to improve his inventiveness as well as his compositional skills. A comparison of his etching-sketches with his later oils - American Landscape for instance with his famous House by the Railroad (1925), or Night Shadows with his masterpiece Nighthawks (1942) - reveals the importance of his early printmaking.

Recognition and Commercial Success

The 1920s finally brought Hopper the breakthrough he sought. His etchings began to receive a degree of public recognition, and his oil painting (as in New York Interior, 1921; New York Restaurant, 1922) - if not yet appreciated by curators and exhibition juries - was becoming more inspired. He also began painting watercolours outdoors during the summer at Gloucester, a small town on the Massachusetts coast, except that while other painters were fully absorbed painting seascapes and scenic views, Hopper was fascinated by the large Victorian houses built by rich sea captains during the previous century.

In 1923, Hopper started dating Josephine Nivison, a fellow artist from his student days, whom he married a year later. Her vivacity, dedication and strength of personality proved the key factor in shaping Hopper's future as an artist. One of her first acts was to submit six of Hopper's Massachusetts watercolours to an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, one of which (The Mansard Roof), was bought by the museum for $100. Even better, his works received rave reviews from the critics. A sell-out solo show followed in 1924 at the Rehn Gallery in New York, and Hopper took the decision to become a full-time painter.

In 1925 Hopper produced and sold The House by the Railroad, his first outstanding oil painting. The isolated Second Empire style building stands alongside the railway track but remains in splendid isolation, its carefully drawn shadows adding to a feeling of dreamlike unreality, not unlike the haunting imagery of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Only a kind of stubborn frontier-like, puritan strength gives it the unique Hopper stamp.

From this point, Hopper's career took off. He painted works like Two on the Aisle (1927) - which sold for a whopping $1,500 - The Automat (1927), Chop Suey (1929), Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929), and Railroad Sunset (1929). His work House by the Railroad (1925) was donated by its millionaire owner to the Museum of Modern Art, while Early Sunday Morning (1930) was purchased for another huge sum by the Whitney Museum of American Art. His reputation rose further in 1931 when major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art began collecting his works. That year he sold more than thirty paintings, including thirteen watercolours. In 1932, he participated in the biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he exhibited continually for the remainder of his life. In 1933, the Museum of Modern gave the 51-year old artist his first large-scale retrospective. He was rich and famous, rode around in a car and owned a new summer house, but despite this success he was unable to shake off a sense of resentment for his days of struggle. Nor was he the easiest man to live with, being noted for his grumpy, unyielding nature, and maintaining an unvarying and spartan lifestyle for the next 30 years.

His output during the late 1930s and early 1940s was prolific and included a number of important works like Room in New York (1932), New York Movie (1939), Cape Cod Evening (1939), Office at Night (1940), Girlie Show (1941), Nighthawks (1942), Hotel Lobby (1943), Morning in a City (1944) and Seven A.M. (1948). He enjoyed a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1950, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1956. His 1950s and 60s works include paintings like First Row Orchestra (1951), the surrealist Rooms by the Sea (1951), Morning Sun (1952) and Hotel by a Railroad (1952), Excursion into Philosophy (1959), Intermission (1963), his great Sun in an Empty Room (1963) and his autobiographical Two Comedians (1966).

During the post-war period and the 1950s his style stood out as a beacon of representational art amid the wave of abstraction that swept through the American art world. The "action painting" of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, being devoid of naturalistic references, was seen as a higher more modern form of art, and was paralleled by an even purer form of Abstract Expressionism in the work of Mark Rothko and others. Supporters of this new style, like the important critic Clement Greenberg, derided Hopper's painting as second-hand, shabby, and impersonal. But Hopper paid no more heed to the new mandarins of modern art than he had to Picasso in Paris, at the beginning of the century.

During the last two decades of his life, he was dogged by health problems. He died in his New York studio in 1967, followed ten months later by his wife Jo. They bequeathed their collection of over three thousand works to the Whitney Museum.

Later Exhibitions

In 1980, the Whitney Museum of American Art staged an important retrospective entitled "Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist," which subsequently toured to London, Dusseldorf, and Amsterdam, as well as San Francisco and Chicago. As well as featuring Hopper's major oil paintings, it also included his preparatory studies for those works, and boosted his worldwide reputation as a major artist.

In 2004, a large collection of his pictures toured Europe, visiting museums in Cologne, Germany and the Tate Gallery in London. The Tate Modern show attracted a massive 420,000 visitors over three months - the second most popular exhibition in the museum's history.

In 2007, an exhibition of fifty oil paintings, thirty watercolors, and twelve prints by Hopper, including several of his greatest masterpieces, painted during his most productive period between 1925 and 1950, opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and toured also to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Significant paintings by Hopper hang in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Des Moines Art Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in public and private collections around the world.

A Guide to Hopper's Art

Not unlike a stage or film director, Hopper employed a wide range of scene sets. Where people (in effect, his "characters") were involved, he arranged them with the utmost care.

Subjects (Sets)

Hopper's pictorial subject matter comes from two main sources. For his genre-paintings, he focused on everyday situations in American life, such as scenes of hotels, motels, automats, theatres, diners, and restaurants, as well as those involving gas stations, railroads, and streets. Many incorporate examples of mongrel American architecture, including styles as varied as pseudo-gothic, French Mansard, Second Empire, Colonial, and ornate Victorian mansions. Second, for his landscapes (mostly completed between 1915 and 1920), seascapes and rural genre-works, he focused on coastal scenery, as well as sailboats, lighthouses and farmhouses. Architecture remained an important element in several of these works.

People (Characters)

People appear in Hopper's paintings as solo figures, couples, or groups, and their presence invariably alludes to a number of narrative possibilities. As John Updike commented: "Hopper is always on the verge of telling a story." However, unlike the earlier Winslow Homer, or the contemporary illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) who was noted for his detailed anecdotal portrayals of everyday life in America, Hopper was neither sentimental nor didactic. He went no further than the verge of a story. Almost as if he saw his role as presenting a still life, which only the viewer's thoughts could animate. An excellent illustration of his unique reluctance to commit to a storyline, was the reply he gave to his wife when she interpreted the woman in Cape Cod Morning as "looking out to see if the weather’s good enough to hang out her wash." Hopper replied "You're making it into a Norman Rockwell picture. From my point of view she's just looking out the window."

Hopper's single figures are mostly female, and appear varyingly dressed, semi-dressed, or nude - typically in the workplace, looking out a window, or reading. Hopper also used couples - for instance in Room in New York (1932), Cape Cod Evening (1939) and Office at Night (1940) - to present more complex tableaux of human relations. In Office at Night (1940), a boss attends to his paperwork while his attractive female secretary pulls a file. The viewer is left with several possible interpretations of the scene, which Hopper had planned with great precision. In fact, detailed preparatory sketches were a regular part of his painting method. For his picture New York Movie (1939), he made over fifty sketches of the theatre interior and the figure of the usherette, and he and Josephine maintained a detailed record of his works noting such elements as facial expressions, as well as sources and directions of light.

Probably the most famous of Hopper's paintings - Nighthawks (1942) - features four people at the counter of a late-night diner: three customers (a couple and a separate man) and a staff member. As usual, every element of the painting is carefully positioned, from the shadows and shapes of the street outside, to the interior arrangement of people, objects and light. Again, there are numerous possible storylines.

Hopper's rural scenes are equally evocative. The House by the Railroad (1925) presents the spectacle of an extravagant isolated house (it could be a hotel) standing outlined against a clear evening sky, next to the railway track running from left to right. It sticks out like a forlorn anachronism, as if life is passing it by. His famous painting Gas (1940) alludes to the isolation of night-travellers with its solitary figure and lonely road.

What is the Meaning of Hopper's Art?

Hopper's art teacher, Robert Henri advised him to "forget about art and paint what interests you in life." And for more than 60 years, this is exactly what he did. Essentially a nineteenth century man, Hopper had no interest in the iconic imagery of 20th century corporate America, with its towering skyscraper architecture and modern machinery. Instead he was drawn to the human condition. He was a man of few expectations and even fewer frills. Thus typically he painted ordinary people - with ordinary hopes and fears - in the process of trying to "get by". There is no great drama in a Hopper picture, but neither is there any salvation. Life just is. If the resulting art appears to depict a degree of loneliness - a characterization Hopper himself took pains to downplay - it is simply because life is essentially a lonely business: not just big-city life - all life.

The old-fashioned sturdy buildings, which attracted his interest and which he used as background for his human scenes, may represent important symbols, insofar as they illustrate the crumbling of his childhood Victorian world under pressure from the modern era.

In short, life rolls by, affecting us and our environment for better and for worse. Our only option is to deal with it as best we can. Hopper was drawn irresistibly to this aspect of the human condition, and painted it assiduously all his life. More intellectual critics may endow his efforts with overlays of existentialism, urban alienation, and the like, but Hopper himself was wary of making statements about society. At most he was - as he reiterated several times - painting himself, that is his personal vision of life.

Hopper's Painting Methods

As mentioned, Hopper was a meticulous artist who took great pains to plan his compositions in considerable detail, just like a movie director arranges his set before calling "action!" His previous experience in advertising and illustration had taught him the importance of a storyline and so his paintings typically included just enough detail to allow the viewers to devise a narrative of their own. His overriding ability was to squeeze the maximum impact out of relatively few pictorial elements, notably by clever use of light and shadow to heighten the scene's emotive value. As a result, he produced some of the greatest genre paintings of the first half of the 20th century. The closest parallel here is with his contemporary Giorgio de Chirico, whose haunting pictures of Italianate squares owe most of their film noir atmosphere to the sharp contrasts between light and shade. (For a contemporary artist working in a similar idiom, see the Scottish genre-painter Jack Vettriano.)

Now regarded as one of the great 20th century painters, Edward Hopper is represented in the best art museums in America.

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