"I don't think I ever tried to paint the American scene; I'm trying to paint myself." Edward Hopper
Many commentators associate him with the American Scene, as a real American painter, a regionalist. This was the case in his retrospective held by the Museum of Modern Art in 1933 in New York , as well as in the “Time Magazine’s Edward Hopper cover story of 1934. The artist himself, refused to be grouped with the Regionalists, most of whose work he didn’t admire. In fact according to him “ the American quality “ is in a painter, and he doesn’t have to strive for it.
A better definition for him would be: Edward Hopper was an American painter whose highly individualistic works are landmarks of American realism. His paintings embody in art a particular American 20th-century sensibility that is characterized by isolation, melancholy, and loneliness.
You may argue that Edward Hopper was not a great painter. He wielded his brushes with a heavy hand, his colours range from muddy to sour and his human figures are rather clumsy. Trained as an illustrator, he knew how to exaggerate contrasts of light and shadow to good effect, and he had solid compositional instincts, but he was not an innovative formalist. Therefore you may call him, a good enough painter.
But for sure, he was a great artist. Few artists have ever tapped so deeply into the 20th-century American soul. Some of his paintings remain indelibly fixed in the American collective consciousness. His best known painting is “ Nighthawks”. Apparently, there was a period when every college dormitory in America had on its walls a poster of Hopper's Nighhawks.It had become an icon and it is easy to understand its appeal. This is not just an image of big-city loneliness, but of existential loneliness: In Nighthawks, when we look at that dark New York street , we would expect the fluorescent-lit café to be welcoming, but it is not. There is no way to enter it, no door. The extreme brightness means that the people inside are held, exposed and vulnerable. They hunch their shoulders defensively. The man behind the counter, though imprisoned in the triangle, is in fact free. He has a job, a home, he can come and go; he can look at the customers with a half-smile. It is the customers who are the nighthawks.
So what exactly is it that makes a Hopper so Hopperesque? He was, in one sense, a plain-spoken poet of the ordinary. Whether painting in New York City , where he lived all his adult life, or around summer homes in Gloucester , Maine , and Cape Cod , he was consistently drawn to the most commonplace, least picturesque scenes. Unlike such modernists as Georgia O'Keeffe and Joseph Stella who celebrated the great skyscrapers, bridges, and other engineering wonders of New York , Hopper focused on the neglected 19th-century buildings and streets that made up most of the city's fabric. He painted many views of New York City , but none of a skyscraper. He avoided to paint freeways, factories, machinery, and industrial plants. He avoided the postcard-pretty maritime views and sought out then-unfashionable old Victorian houses and farmhouses set on nondescript roads or in the midst of scrubby fields. He painted lighthouses before they became scenic tourist attractions.
There are no accidents, no sickness and death. His people never get involved in protests or strikes. Nor has he shown differences between rich and poor. He depicted people of the white middle class; ordinary people like shop girls, maids, clerks, solitary pedestrians and the movie theatre usherette lost in thought. He was not a socialist idealizer of the common man, but he had an achingly tender sympathy for people who appear passed by, outcast, or abandoned by life. His world is a strangely static one, with no future. Hopper never portrayed a child. His is a world of adults condemned to extinction, and conscious of the fact.
I am most attracted by his down-to-earth matter-of-factness about his paintings of nude or partly unclothed women in bare, anonymous rooms. They are quickened by sexual interest, but they are not prurient. Typically his women are looking out the windows of their rooms as though dreaming of other lives they might have led. The recurrent sense of being shut out in his paintings that accounts for the sad and lonely mood that so distinctively marks Hopper’s paintings might have something to do with his particular psychological constitution. He was a famously reticent man and he relied almost exclusively on his wife, Jo, for company. Perhaps an inability, to fully connect with other people or locked- up complex feelings deep within himself. “Woman in the Sun” 1961 is a good example of that.
In Woman in the Sun, a woman is standing next to an unmade bed, right in the middle of the sunlight slipping through the open window. With an unlit cigarette, she is gazing the void. In fact she has reached the borderline. She is in a situation beyond which she cannot go. She has let the sun take possession of her. She holds a cigarette but has forgotten to light it. She has forgotten herself.
We have the impression that there is something undefined, perhaps unnameable, but at least beyond our comprehension, to which she has surrendered herself. This women turning to the sun, opening herself to the ultimate source of light, reminds us our link to the nature. The erotic suspense in the scene derives from the absence of a partner, which tempts us to assume the role, and enter a stranger’s story.
Hopper tells stories that are reduced to a single, isolated situation. Indeed they are not stories but a depiction of life. He relates history in which before and after seem interchangeable. Everything belongs to a cycle, passes only to return. He gives us a few details and tempting hints which arouse our interest and concern. As soon as we begin to look at the picture, we realize how little we know about the reality depicted. That is the abundance of suggested meaning which makes Hopper’ picture so difficult to say anything about. We try to imagine the stories of the people who appear on them. The deeper we attempt to penetrate into Hopper’s world, the more hermetic it becomes. In the end it is silence.
He depicts people in places where their daily lives are played out. He may show us only the surface of things but he means what is beneath it. Is she at home, in her room, the women in the sun? Hopper’s women (people) are not really at home anywhere, neither in a room nor outside, and neither alone nor with others. That’s why we have the feeling that they are always on the move. She gives the impression that she is attempting to escape something. She is involved in herself and cannot seem to get her life straight. Does she escape the society of others, and would she like to escape herself?
His pictures also address the issue of perception. They include the viewer’s eye, despite the fact that figures appear entirely self- absorbed and unconscious of being observed. We remain outside their lives, looking in. At the same time they perceive things that remain hidden to us, beyond our field of view. They pursue their own thoughts and dreams, which sometimes lead them far from the here and now. he woman in the sun gazes into a space that is concealed from the viewer. Or is she looking into nothingness? We sense that, ultimately, we can know absolutely nothing about it.
The room occupies much more space than the women in sun. In general, in Hopper’s paintings, most of the figures are small in scale with respect to their setting, never appearing to dominate it. Perhaps this reflected the fact that man is no more than a speck in the universe. Every human being remains bound to his or her place in the world, dependent on it, part of a complex system. Hopper called his objectivity “the visual fact”.
It is this sunlight in Hopper’s pictures that places the figures so tangibly before us, and that simultaneously removes them to a distance. An unbridgeable gap between life and art, once realized, may be painful, but it does free us form the role of “voyeur” ad make us artist, the silent witnesses. She seems to warship the sun, letting it tempt her out of her hiding place. But Hopper’s light can be even more merciless than darkness. His light, sunlight (or electric light, fluorescent light) can be strong, even blinding, but has no warmth. It can awaken the hope of a new life only to disappoint it a moment later. She basks in the sun, receptive and full of expectation, but she is destined to remain alone. This is the light that isolates people, deepens their lonelisness.
Hopper’s light combines elements from Rembrandt’s and Vermeer’s. Rembrandt’s chiaroscuros enfold his figures in a protective darkness like a mantle. In his painting, what takes place in a person’s heart must always remain obscure. However Vermeer’s figures were created for the light. Hopper’s figures are as vulnerable as Rembrandt’s. He just removes Rembrandt’s people from a comforting shadow and subjects them to the light of Vermeer, the harsh light of the present, forever.
His art had an “Old Masters” touch. Hopper possessed a sophisticated aesthetic, camouflaged by the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of his art. The "ultimate ideal," as he said, is their "absolute equilibrium," and we see that in Hopper’s pictures. It is the "ever-varying balancing act" between "the ‘purely artistic’ and ‘objective’
It's true that he wanted American painting to stop taking its marching orders from France . But he was never a cultural isolationist. By contrast, Hopper made it to Paris no fewer than three times from 1906 to 1910, which are later on reflected in his work in the form of the bluntness of Manet, the blue shadows of the Impressionists and hint from De Chirico. He was a kind of Cubist, treating buildings as abstract structures with a charismatic quality of their own, independently of the people who use them.
. His “view from nowhere” (not the view from realism’s “here” or Modernism’s “everywhere”) and his almost abstact quality inspired artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.
He was a tough-minded realist and a searching, tender-hearted mystic, a late bloomer who found his voice after the age of 40. He once said his goal as a painter was to achieve "the greatest possible austerity without the loss of emotion. Maybe this aspiration explains the Hopper paradox: the easy-to-read artist who's always just beyond our grasp.
Hopper was born on July 22, 1882, in Nyack , New York as son of a middle class American family, and studied illustration in New York City at a commercial art school from 1899 to 1900. Around 1901 he switched to painting and studied at the New York School of Art until 1906.His teachers were Kenneth Hayes Miller, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), and Robert Henri, one of the fathers of American Realism - a man whom he later described as 'the most influential teacher. It was very likely Henri has awakened Hopper’s lifelong admiration for the art of Thomas Eakins. But the one who had the most influence on him was his contemporary John Sloan, another member of The Eight , whom he met in 1904. Being a student of Robert Henri, he was almost preordained to go to Paris . He made three trips to Europe between 1906 and 1910 but remained unaffected by current French and Spanish experiments in cubism. He even didn’t recall having heard of Picasso. He was influenced mainly by the great European realists—Diego Velazquez, Francisco de Goya, Honore Daumier, Edouard Manet—whose work had first been introduced to him by his New York City teachers. In addition to spending some months in Paris , he visited London , Amsterdam , Berlin and Brussels . On his second visit to Europe, he visited Spain as well as France . After this, though he was to remain a restless traveller, he never set foot in Europe again. Yet its influence was to remain with him for a long time: he was well read in French literature, and could quote Verlaine in the original. He said later: '[ America ] seemed awfully crude and raw when I got back. It took me ten years to get over Europe .' For some time his painting was full of reminiscences of what he had seen abroad.
His early paintings, such as “ Le pavillon de flore “(1909, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City), were committed to realism and exhibited some of the basic characteristics that he was to retain throughout his career: compositional style based on simple, large geometric forms; flat masses of colour; and the use of architectural elements in his scenes for their strong verticals, horizontals, and diagonals.
Hopper had to wait until 1913 to make his first sale -”Sailing” exhibited at the Armory Show in New York which brought together American artists and all the leading European modernists. In 1920 he had his first solo exhibition, at the Whitney Studio Club, but on this occasion none of the paintings sold. His work excited little interest. He was already thirty-seven and beginning to doubt if he would achieve any success as an artist and was still obliged to work principally as a commercial illustrator for the next decade to make a living (Also moved to making watercolours, which sold more readily for which at that time there was a rising new market).
In 1923, Hopper had settled in Greenwich Village , which was to be his base for the rest of his life, and renewed his friendship with a neighbour, Jo Nivison, whom he had known when they were fellow students under Chase and Henri.They married the following year. Their long and complex relationship was to be the most important of the artist's life. Jo’s presence was essential to his work, sometimes literally so, since she modelled for all the female figures in his paintings, and was adept at enacting the various roles he required. On the other hand she she felt that he did nothing to encourage her own development as a painter, but on the contrary did everything to frustrate it.
"From the time of his marriage, Hopper's professional fortunes changed. His second solo show, at the Rehn Gallery in New York in 1924, was a sell-out. Until the end of his life he stayed together with Jo and Rehn Gallery remained his agent throughout his life.The following year, he painted what is now generally acknowledged to be his first fully mature picture, “The House by the Raildroad” (Museum of Modern Art, New York City), a landmark in American art . The emphasis on blunt shapes and angles and the stark play of light and shadow were in keeping with his earlier work, but the mood—which was the real subject of the painting—was new: It conveyed an atmosphere of all-embracing loneliness and almost eerie solitude.
Hopper continued to work in this style for the rest of his life, refining and purifying it but never abandoning its basic principles. Most of his paintings portray scenes in New York or New England , both country and city scenes. He travelled widely within the United States , as well as going on trips to Mexico . He painted hotels, motels, and trains and also liked to paint the public and semi-public places where people gathered: restaurants, theatres, cinemas and offices. But even in these paintings he stressed the theme of loneliness - his theatres are often semi deserted, with a few patrons waiting for the curtain to go up or the performers isolated in the fierce light of the stage.
As the years went on, however, he found suitable subjects increasingly difficult to discover, and often felt blocked and unable to paint. His friend, the painter Charles Burchfield wrote: 'With Hopper the whole fabric of his art seems to be interwoven with his personal character and manner of living.' When the link between the outer world he observed and the inner world of feeling and fantasy broke, Hopper found he was unable to create. In particular, the rise of Abstract Expressionism left him marooned artistically, for he disapproved of many aspects of the new art. He died in 1967, isolated if not forgotten, and Jo Hopper died ten months later. Although, Hopper was internationally acclaimed in his lifetime and was elected to both the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1945) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1955), his true importance has only been fully realized in the years since his death.