Edward Hopper, an illustrated essay by artist and Deskarati art critic – Alan Mason –
1. Edward Hopper, Self Portrait, (1925-30) aged 43 to 48
Edward Hopper, (1882-1967), was an American painter who earned his living as a commercial artist for most of his adult life. He was a representational artist who produced his own work during his free time. These two aspects, “commercial art” and “representational artist” were sufficient to damn Hopper’s free, non-commercial art in the eyes of the art establishment within the USA and in Europe.
2. An Example of Hopper’s Highly Successful Commercial Art
This establishment, (critics, public galleries, and foundations), was wedded to abstract art for most of the 20 C and excluded any representational art as unrepresentative of the spirit of the times. Their treatment of Hopper was of a piece with their attitudes to Charles Burchfield, and Andrew Wyeth in the USA and, in a later epoch, David Shepherd and Jack Vettriano in Britain.
Ironically, this was never the view of the general public, both wealthy purchasers and ordinary gallery visitors, who responded enthusiastically to Hopper’s work. Commercial art galleries, lacking state or institutional funding, had to be much more alive to public tastes, and were quite willing to display representational art. Hopper had his first exhibition at the age of 26 (1908) and his first one-man-show at 38 (1920). His work is now undergoing a re-appraisal by the American and European art establishment, for reasons which, hopefully, will become evident in this essay.
3. “Six o’ Clock” Charles Burchfield, 1936
4. Andrew Wyeth
The reader is invited to read the section, “REFERENCES TO SOURCES” at the end of this article, where the critical responses to Hopper’s work of an art historian, (Rolf Günther Renner), a journalist, (AA Gill), and an art critic, (Waldemar Januszczak) are quoted in general terms. While this would normally be put at the head of an article like this, it does tend to slow the pace of a deskarati posting and it has been relegated to the technical apparatus at the end, intended for the expert or enthusiast.
Early Art Training
Edward Hopper had a somewhat unusual start to his career as an artist because he spent some time in France during the first decade of the 20 C, when a host of new artistic movements were jostling for their place in the sun. They included Symbolism, Impressionism, and Surrealism. We need not be overly impressed by this parade of formal labels. Artists worked individually in their own way, and though they were often aware of, and sometimes influenced by each others’ work, the various “movements” or “schools” were just convenient labels attached by critics or commercial dealers in art.
5. “Painter and Model” 1902-1904 Oil paint on Cardboard
Hopper was born in Nyack, New York State, about 35 miles north of New York City, in 1882, and at the age of seventeen, (1899), he entered a New York school for commercial illustrators and remained until the following year. From here he transferred to the New York School of Art (Chase School) for the next seven years, (1900-1906), studying illustration and painting.
Hopper’s student work (5) produced when he was around 20 to 22 years old, is competent and an interesting study but shows he was still, inevitably, searching for his own style, or voice.
In 1906, Hopper, aged 24, made a trip to Europe, notably Britain, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, but he spent most time in the French capital, Paris. By 1908 Hopper was working full-time as a professional commercial artist in New York and had his first exhibition at the Harmonie Club, together with the other pupils of his teacher, Robert Henri of Chase School.
In 1909 he returned to France and spent most of his time in Paris. His third European trip was in 1910, aged 28, to France and Spain.
6. Edward Hopper in Paris, 1907 7. “The Pont des Arts”, Paris, by Edward Hopper, 1907
The Bridges of Paris
Hopper began to produce interesting and competent work in the French Impressionist style, as shown by his studies of the Paris bridges across the river Seine (7, 8, and 9). His painting of the Queensborough Bridge, (10) in his adopted home town of New York, made in 1913, is very evocative of the Paris studies. Renner sees the work as marking “a transition from the European to the American in his art.” (Renner, p. 19, op. cit.)
The French Impressionist artist, Claude Monet was also fascinated by bridges as subjects for painting. He made a series of studies of the bridges at Argenteuil, a village then on the outer suburbs of Paris. One of these studies is included here as an interesting comparison. (11)
8. “Le Quay des Grands Augustins”, Paris, 1909
9. “Le Pont Royal”, Paris, 1909
10. “Queensborough Bridge”, New York, by Edward Hopper 1913,
11. “Le Pont d’Argenteuil”, (The Seine Bridge at Argenteuil) Claude Monet, 1874
Another subject that caught Hopper’s interest in Paris was the construction of townscapes, or visual impressions of the multiplicity of houses seen in any town or city view. They are a challenge to any artist, because it is very easy to become bogged down in detail and fail to see the wood for the trees. This topic is of greater interest to us than that of bridges, because Hopper continued to paint many townscapes for the rest of his career.
Townscapes were a popular subject for many Impressionist artists because they treated them as a celebration of the city they loved.
12. “St. Germain-l’Auxerrois”, Paris, by Claude Monet, 1867
Claude Monet painted a series of Parisian townscapes. The one above is a rather formal, winter landscape with the medieval Gothic church, and its snow-covered roof dominating the square below. The trees in the foreground and the clusters of people are merely suggested with light brush strokes.
By contrast, Paul Cézanne presents a lighter, and much less formal townscape, really no more than a study of rooflines and roofing styles, in the strong light of summer. (13) Cézanne’s colours are brighter and light flowing brushstrokes merely suggest the architectural details like chimney stacks, windows and doors.
13. “Les Toits”, (Roofs) by Paul Cézanne, 1877
14. “The City” by Edward Hopper 1927,
Hopper’s townscape above harks back to his Paris days with its formal aspect, high vantage point, and human figures no more than distant dots. During the rest of his painting career, for the most part, Hopper chose low vantage points, and close buildings so that the human figures became the principal centres of interest.
The Impressionists were greatly interested in picturesque landscapes, and have recorded many such types. A typical example of a romantic coastal landscape is shown below. (15)
15. “La Falaise a Dieppe” (The Cliffs at Dieppe) by Claude Monet, 1882
16. “Blackhead, Monhegan” by Edward Hopper 1916-19
Hopper’s skill at capturing the essence of a rocky coastal landscape is very evident in this study of a headland at Monhegan, Maine, in extreme north-east of the USA. Despite this ability, we know that the landscapes he chose to paint in his classic works were all too level and mundane, and lacking anything of the “chocolate box” quality of some of the works of the Impressionists.
He spent the whole summer of 1916 painting at Monhegan. He became very fond of the north-east coast of the USA and Canada, regularly spending his summers holidaying there, not only at Monhegan, but also Rockland, Maine, in the summer of 1926. Eventually making his first visit to South Truro, Massachusetts, in 1930, he built a permanent summer home there in 1933. He was then fifty-one.
As AA Gill observes, “Once you’ve shown an interest in Hopper, the locals of Cape Cod will point out any number of his views, shots, clapboards, dunes and coast. All have a benign, cosy, good-looking blandness. Cape Cod is a fine, windblown, elegant place, but it’s hardly like discovering Tuscany or Umbria for the first time and suddenly seeing the early Renaissance fall into the landscape like a missing bit of jigsaw. Hopper country resolutely refuses to look like Hopper.” (Gill, p. 44)
Although Hopper clearly spent much time in contemplating, enjoying and painting coastal landscapes during the second two decades of the 20 C, his principal artistic interests were elsewhere, in the city and in less charming country. It is possible that he instinctively knew that a picturesque landscape caught the eye of the viewer and took attention from any human subject. If the human being was to be paramount it was important to keep the externals as simple as possible.
Hopper and the Art Movements in France
When Hopper went to Paris in 1906, Impressionism was already a rather old artistic movement. Some of the Impressionist works I have included in this essay date from the 1860s (12), the 1870s (11, 13) and the 1880s (15), at least 30 years before Hopper’s first visit. In fact, Impressionism was by that time the current orthodoxy, and the public’s shock and revulsion of the early days in the 1860s had been replaced by a general acceptance. It was a popular style with the public then, and remains so to the present day, both in Europe and the USA.
That Hopper took readily to the Impressionist style is evinced by his studies of the Paris bridges. (7, 8, 9, and 10), but eventually he began to transcend this style, in what Renner calls, “his transition from an Impressionist (French) period to an early American period…from an Impressionist style to Hopper’s more characteristic use of realistic detail.” (Renner p. 17)
“The Armory Show (1913) was a landmark exhibition that introduced European Modernism and abstract art to North America. Hopper began to emphasize his identity as an American artist, and the psychological dimension of his art.”, and as noted earlier, “Queensborough Bridge” (10) unmistakably defines a transition from the European to the American in his art.” (Renner p. 19)
However, there were two other important artistic movements in the France of Hopper’s visits between 1906 and 1910. Apart from Impressionism, both Symbolism, and Surrealism, require definition and some description because it is arguable that they all have had an influence on the art of Edward Hopper.
The Impressionist Movement
The Impressionist Movement was a trend in French painting originating in the 1860s and given the name after the first exhibition, in 1874, of a group including Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Paul Cézanne. One of Monet’s pictures there, “Impression – soleil levant” (Impression of the sun rising), suggested the name to the critics.
“The Impressionist approach was characterized by its concern with fleeting effects of light and motion, its disregard of outlines and distaste for sombre colours, its original angles of vision, and its general aura of delicate yet mundane gaiety. It had been anticipated much earlier in the century by the work of the Frenchman, Corot, and the Englishman, Turner.”
17. “Norham Castle, Sunrise” by J M W Turner (c 1835-40)
“Virtually every major development in 20th-century art is traceable back to the Impressionists. 1886 saw the debut of the Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat. Through van Gogh the movement influenced Expressionism, through Cézanne the Cubists. Monet continued till his death in 1926, as the prototypical Impressionist. His late works were to be important for Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.
The Impressionist movement began to spread across the globe, captivating the wealthier collectors everywhere, and selling in millions of colour reproductions.”
(Adapted from an entry by John Willett, of the Times Literary Supplement in “The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought”)
(In music, by analogy, Impressionism is a style of composition in which the composer evokes a scene in a manner which is undramatic; hence, the music is descriptive rather than programmatic. Its greatest exponent was Debussy whose, “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune” (1892) first dramatically established the style. It is marked by a tendency to use sound as colour, of a deliberately nebulous character, to avoid clear-cut rhythm or harmony, and to eschew the dramatic dynamism shown, for example, by, Beethoven.
Debussy, Ravel, Delius, Bax, Albeniz, and Respighi are typical examples. The symbolist poets Verlaine, Baudelaire, and especially Mallarme were as potent an influence on them as the Impressionist painters. That influence has extended to Pierre Boulez, a follower of Debussy, though his music is more consciously directed by the intellect than by emotion.”
(Adapted from an entry by Anthony Hopkins, of the Royal College of Music, in “The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought”).
The Symbolist Movement
The artists who were part of this movement often chose subjects from classical mythology that were macabre or grotesque, such as “The Cyclops”, (18) to evoke surprise, shock or horror on the part of the viewer. Hopper was able to achieve a similar puzzlement or unease by the use of a far more mundane or everyday treatments of his subject.
18. “The Cyclops” by Odilon Redon, 1898-1900,
“Less an artistic movement than a state of mind, Symbolism appeared toward the middle of the 19th century. Its influence was greatest in areas of Europe which combined advanced industrialisation and a Catholic population. We can circumscribe the Symbolist phenomenon by drawing a line linking Glasgow, Stockholm, Gdansk, Lodz, Trieste, Florence and Barcelona: the so-called “Europe of steam”. Jean Moréas gave Symbolism a name and an identity on 18 September 1886. Some thirty years later, it expired amid the throes of the First World War.
By then, Modernism had triumphed and Symbolism was in disgrace; some Symbolist artists were reclassified differently, while others, such as Khnopff, Hodler, Segantini, and von Stuck, were summarily dispatched to the attic of history.
Symbolism was swept away by the new watchwords of modernity. Some of these were movements which predated the First World War: Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Futurism. Others emerged in its wake, like Dada and Surrealism. The war had cut a swathe in the ranks of science, the arts and letters, and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic came to complete this grim harvest. Survivors of the trenches, such as the Germans Otto Dix and George Grosz, were scarred for life.
(p. 7 “Symbolism” by Michael Gibson, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1999)
Symbolism attached special value to powers of the imagination, the seer-poet, and the poetic path toward a transcendent world. It stressed the ‘correspondences’ between the visible and invisible worlds, with a prime role for the hyper-aesthetic imagination of the poet, and artist who digests his “storehouse of images and signs in the visible world” and relates them to create “a new world, the sensation of newness”.
(Adapted from an entry by Malcolm Bradbury, Professor of American Studies, in “The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought”.)
This idea of “transcendence” or “other worldliness” is particularly well illustrated by Böcklin’s “Sacred Wood”, (19) with its eerie procession of white robed worshippers approaching us. It is the use of light and shadow which changes a beautifully painted lawn and trees into a scene of mystery.
19. “The Sacred Wood” by Arnold Böcklin, 1882
The Symbolist use of powerful light and shadow to enhance the feeling of mystery or even dread provides a direct link to Hopper who skilfully employed these effects to achieve similar responses through more mundane scenes of everyday life.
20. “The Pink House” by William Degouve de Nuncques 1892
This is well exemplified by “The Pink House” (20) by the Belgian artist Nuncques, where an apparently ordinary detached house is given an air of mystery by the heavy shadow, and the isolated lighted window placed in the middle of it. The pink walls are brightly lit by some unknown light source from the left, which adds to the atmosphere of curiosity and uncertainty.
This particular painting is known to have influenced the Surrealist artist, Rene Magritte, a fellow-Belgian, particularly in his “L’Empire des Lumieres.” (28) It is evocative of Hopper’s paintings of houses at night, especially “Rooms for Tourists” (27). It is a matter for speculation as to whether Hopper absorbed this influence directly from the Symbolists, or indirectly via the Surrealists. What is certain is that all these influences were swirling around in the Paris of the first decade of the twentieth century.
The Surrealist Movement
“Surrealism began as a French literary movement in Paris during 1920-23, later establishing itself also in the visual arts, theatre, and cinema, to become the last of this century’s great international modern currents. Though the name had been coined in 1917, the true spiritual ancestors of the movement were the late-18th-century Romantics, and the various kinds of Symbolists.
In 1924 the Surrealist group manifesto proclaimed the inferiority of Realism to ‘psychic automatism’ and ‘previously neglected forms of association’ of a magical, irrational, hallucinatory sort. A distinctive Surrealist art gradually developed. Its main model was the Metaphysical Painting of de Chirico, with its disquieting perspectives and romanticising the banal, (21) but the more Dadaist work of Hans Arp, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp also contributed, and some attempt was made to recruit Picasso and Paul Klee.
21.”The Uncertainty of the Poet” by Giorgio de Chirico, 1913
In 1923 Andre Masson’s ‘automatic drawings’ (or random doodles), influenced the Biomorphic art of Joan Miro who, with Arp, represented the Abstract wing of the movement.
But the surreal poetry of de Chirico’s pictures – a blend of strikingly dead subject-matter, at once familiar and improbable, with a smoothly academic technique – was developed further until the emergence, during the second half of the 1920s of such artists as the Belgians, Rene Magritte (22) and Paul Delvaux and finally the Spaniard Salvador Dali (23) who settled in Paris at the end of 1929.
Basing himself on a ‘paranoiac-critical method’, Dali depicted soft watches, (23) decomposing human limbs and other glutinously biomorphic props lost in endless arid landscapes. By a mixture of technical skill and brilliant self-projection he became, for the public of the next two decades, the quintessential surrealist.”
(Adapted from an entry by John Willett, of the Times Literary Supplement in “The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought”)
22. “The Great War” by Renee Magritte, 1964
23. “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali, 1931
Although the two Surrealist works illustrated above are intriguing and disturbing to the viewer, they do not quite have some of the alarm and menace associated with much of Hopper’s work. His later pictures often have an eerie quality about them. In what appear to be quite ordinary scenes, it always feels as if things are not quite what they seem. The strangeness is difficult to describe in general terms, so it is easier to analyse particular pictures in the categories listed below.
Hopper’s Choice of Subjects
These subjects fall into seven categories and each will be explored in detail.
Isolated Houses in a Landscape
Intrusion into Privacy
Landscapes and Townscapes
Isolated Houses in a Landscape
The painting, “House by the Railroad” (24) epitomises this whole group of works. A low vantage point emphasizes the railroad track, the ends of the sleepers and the rail, but has the effect of losing the landscape altogether. No people appear in the picture, there are no trains, and nothing seems to be happening. Finally, the building is picked out in bright colours and deep shadows. As one studies the painting, it creates an atmosphere of hysteria. Surely, something is seriously wrong here?
The house appears something like a human face; not exactly, but close enough. With this insight it looks to me like a little house of horrors, with each of the windows making a face. To make my point I include an overdrawing of Hopper’s work. (24B)
24. “House by the Railroad” by Edward Hopper 1925
24B. “The Little House Of Horrors”
Hopper’s work entitled “Railroad Crossing” (25) is less spare. The vantage point is higher and we have a simple landscape of yellow grassland, a lightly-suggested woodland, and an isolated tree. The railroad is established by a signal post, two telegraph poles, and a brown line of fencing. Still there are no people, and no trains, and nothing is happening. The houses seem to menace any traveller passing along the road which crosses the picture in the lower foreground. They have a more animal quality, like two fierce dogs perhaps.
Again, I have included an overdrawn version to make my point.
25. “Railroad Crossing” by Edward Hopper 1922 – 1923
25B. “Lurking Animals”
Observant readers will have noted that the more refined and pared down house (24) was painted some two years later than the other one (25) so perhaps Hopper was distilling his design methods for this type of study.
Perhaps the next example of Hopper’s work is not exactly an “isolated house in a landscape”, but it is certainly an individual house in a townscape. (26) Similar comments apply in that the environs have been reduced to a few dark masses of colour. Once again, no people appear in the picture, and nothing seems to be happening. Most of us are familiar with late night shops like this, but would we pause a little before entering this one? It has an altogether eerie flavour about it. The shop is well-lit, but there seem to be no other external sources of light.
26. “Drug Store” by Edward Hopper 1927
Renner sees irony in Hopper’s frequent use of lettering in his works, as in the “venerable corner drug store, Silber’s Pharmacy, the crass advertisement for “Ex-Lax” (a laxative to ease one of Civilization’s endemic ailments) contrasts not only with the store name in terms of its lettering style, but also with the old-fashioned dignity of the window display of jars, drapes and gift sets.” (Renner, p.25, op. cit.)
The most extreme example of this group is, in my view, “Rooms for Tourists”. (27) I imagine myself, in a strange town, in the evening, looking for accommodation. This place looks well-maintained, (woodwork, paint cover, blinds, hedges, lawn), tastefully furnished (circular wooden pedestal table), is brightly lit, and yet…would I freely choose to enter?
The subject matter of the painting sounds quite boring. Why would an artist choose a tourist hotel as subject? Yet the painting is far from boring. Hopper has packed a wealth of information into it with a few deft strokes, as my list of the hotel’s positive qualities shows. Nevertheless, the picture is eerie and unnerving. Where all the people? The hotel looks completely open, in that the bay window is uncurtained and one can see right in. Yet there is no one, guests or staff, to be seen.
Once again, the house has the qualities of a grotesque, menacing head. For me, that is the overall impression, despite all the apparently positive detail, the whole thing looks nasty, and I would give it a wide berth. How exactly can Hopper achieve this effect with such a simple, even mundane a topic? Pure genius, may be the answer.
27. “Rooms for Tourists”, by Edward Hopper 1943
In case my analysis should seem hysterical or excessive, I want to quote more fully from the text of Rolf Günther Renner, author of, “Edward Hopper – Transformation of the Real”.
Some of his paintings “introduce a psychologizing and dramatic element to the demarcation of interiors and exteriors; and the tendency becomes even more pronounced in Hopper’s 1945 painting, “Rooms for Tourists”. It is an ambivalent, Freudian world in which the things that comfort us and the things we find unsettling are implicitly shown to have the same origins.
The house defies the night, offering comfort and (in every sense) accommodation. The lighted rooms and the sign by the hedge promise security. Nonetheless, Hopper places a question mark over the comfort and the security; there is nobody to be seen in the house, and the very light has a mysterious quality, as if it all derived from a single source that irradiated through the house. The painting transcends realism.
It is worth noticing that the house is the only thing in Hopper’s painting that is lit from some (unidentified) source beyond. The two light sources within and without, meet at the front of the house. The double light source, giving the painting its overall impact, encodes the content of the picture in a twofold way. His pictures articulate unconscious fantasies, and resist interpretation purely in terms of symbolism or iconography.” The ambivalence of the light source in Hopper’s picture recalls the similar effect in “The Pink House” by the Belgian Symbolist de Nuncques (20).
The quirky, defamiliarizing effect of the light might be compared with “L’Empire des Lumieres II.” by the French surrealist painter, René Magritte” (28) (Renner p. 42)
28. “L’Empire des Lumieres” (The Empire of Light) by René Magritte, 1954
The strangeness of this picture lies in the fact that the sky is blue and it is clearly full day, and yet the trees and lawn are in the deep shadow of night, and the street light is on, as well as the lit house windows on the left. It is a curious and disconcerting picture but it completely lacks the menace of Hopper’s work.
Some of the works already discussed, “Drug Store” and “Rooms for Tourists”, fall into this category. Perhaps the best known night scene is “Night Hawks” (29) a much-reproduced and very popular work of Hopper with the general public.
29. “Night Hawks” (detail) by Edward Hopper 1942
What can we say about this painting? The title tells us something. What are “night hawks”? They are people who are up and awake when most people are in bed asleep. We do not really mean people who happen to earn their living by working at night, like lorry drivers, taxi drivers, nurses or policemen, or the barman/cook shown in the painting.
Night hawks are people who choose to be around in the wee small hours for their own special reasons. There are only three of them. The man on the left is mostly concealed from us. He is reasonably well-dressed, holding a glass, and with a mug at his elbow. He does not seem to be talking to anyone else. This appears to be a coffee bar and there are no alcoholic drinks on display, or on the counter.
The man in the centre of the picture captures our attention. (29B) He is snappily dressed with a well-cut suit, and a bright blue coloured shirt. Unlike the man at left in his dull Homburg hat, he wears a snap-brim fedora, the choice of a smart, man–about–town. However, he is a bit too old for that role. He looks rather serious, but does not seem to be talking to anyone. He is smoking with his cigarette held elegantly between his long fingers, and a coffee mug stands near his elbow? He has a sharp, beaky nose, hard eyes and a firm uncompromising mouth. Is he a gangster? He looks too old and too slightly built for that job, with his delicate hands. Is he a professional gambler perhaps? Possibly, he is a man with a quite ordinary job who likes to lead a double life as a smart cookie and night hawk.
What about the woman? (29B) Is she with the man in the centre? Though she is sitting next to him there is not the slightest evidence of any kind of intimacy or even contact with him. She is smartly but very simply dressed. It is possibly quite a hot night. She is about the same age as the man beside her. She could be his wife, but just as easily she may be an older prostitute trying to pick up a client. If this is the case, she does not seem to be trying very hard.
Physically, she is very thin, even gaunt, and her eyes are sunken and heavily made up with mascara. She is examining something between her fingers as people do when picking at some small skin lesion. If she is not the wife, or girlfriend of the centre man, and not a prostitute, just an independent woman, what is she doing, out and around in the small hours?
29B. Night Hawks” (detail) by Edward Hopper 1942
The barman/cook does appear to be speaking, but no one seems to be paying any attention to him. He wears a white jacket and his two-peaked white cap is perched rather improbably on the side of his head, revealing his thinning, sandy hair. Like the woman, he is bony and gaunt,
The cap may be a clue. It is very like that worn by US sailors, and style of wearing typical of the Service. Is the barman/cook making a statement about his former role in the US Navy even though he is no more than a “hash-slinger” or barkeep?
Renner is fairly brief on this picture, commenting that “the bar’s bubble of glass is an enclosure in space, hermetically sealing off the people from the city.” (p. 77). The composition establishes dynamics that come loaded with implications, but this does not account for the full impact of the painting.
It is not an account of lost illusions a la Humphrey Bogart or James Dean. The psychological tension goes deep. Against the desertedness of the city and the solitariness of the third drinker at the bar, Hopper has placed the togetherness of the couple. This is the source of the psychological effect: though the picture derives its social impact from the presentation of the bar and the background stores, it is primarily a screen onto which discrete fantasies are projected.” (p. 80).
Edward Hopper, himself, has commented on his own work, “Nighthawks seems to be the way I think of a night street. I didn’t see it as particularly lonely. I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” He also stressed the casualness of the composition, saying it showed nothing but “a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” (Hopper from Renner p. 80)
30. “First Row Orchestra” by Edward Hopper 1951
AA Gill, journalist and film reviewer, has commented penetratingly, ” ‘Nighthawks’, Edward Hopper’s picture of an all-night New York diner, is one of the most famous and familiar images of the 20th century. One of the scant handful of museum pictures that have made it over the gallery wall, escaped the frame and become part of the popular visual vernacular. ‘Nighthawks’ has been plagiarised, parodied, lampooned, collaged and cartooned. Ask the internet and you’ll get 110,000 sites.
The appeal of “Nighthawks” is instantly accessible, but — just as instantly — it’s fugitive and inexplicable. This is not an immediately winning subject. A rather dull window into a dull cafe; the bright light inside shines out to cut the darkness of the street. The room is plain to the point of banality. All we can see are two metal urns, a strangely improbable triangular counter, a yellow door, the tops of empty stools and four figures.
It’s not painted with verve or in great detail. It lacks excitement, occasion and spectacle. The more you look at it, the more its fame seems contrary. Every commentary on Nighthawks — and there are thousands, because people seem continually moved to write about this image — mentions the word “loneliness”, usually in the first sentence. It is an evocation of the uncaring, deep loneliness of the city.
But undoubtedly there is a sense of loneliness, of dislocation. It isn’t in what we’re looking at. It comes from somewhere else in the shadow. The overwhelming atmosphere of loneliness in “Nighthawks” comes from outside. It’s from us, the viewer, standing alone in the cold and the dark, looking in at the light through the window. The emotional tug isn’t to be found in the picture: it’s in our profound reaction to it.
But it’s film that seems to be the most obvious influence on his images. The odd points of view, the angles, the portraits of houses that look like establishing shots. Hopper looks at things from above or below, moving a composition so that it resembles a frame pulled from a panning shot. He takes the convention of film noir and marries it with the older convention of landscape painting. The result is a disturbing sense of unease often described as loneliness.” (pp. 40-42, Gill)
Gill’s point is amply demonstrated by Hopper’s painting of a concert audience, “First Row Orchestra” (30), where although nothing is happening, we are aware that the action is shortly to begin. We know that Hopper was fascinated with cinema and often took it as a subject for his paintings.
Intrusion into Privacy
These are scenes, usually of a domestic nature, where it is clear that the people are unaware that they are being observed, and were they to realise it, would take steps to restore their privacy. Frequently the subjects are women, but this is not always the case. Often the women are nude, but not inevitably so.
The art critic Waldemar Januszczak makes a fascinating suggestion about this particular choice of subject by Hopper.
“Have you ever been on the L train at night? The L train runs from Brooklyn, across the East river, and into 14th Street in Manhattan. This is the one that Edward Hopper used to get to and from work in the 1920s and 30s. Even if you haven’t been on the L, you can easily get a sense of what the journey was like by inspecting some of his evocative paintings of what he saw from the elevated stretches. Secretaries in offices bent suggestively over their filing cabinets, couples in hotel rooms sitting by their bags, nighthawks in cafes hunched over their beers, people at work, people after work, nobody smiling, nobody happy.
Having settled on his preferred figurative style in the 1920s, he kept it up, pretty much unchanged, for the next 40 years. In Hopper’s art, the 1930s never end. His moods always remain cinematic and noirish. All his life he was a voyeur peeping through the window into other people’s unhappiness. All his life he saw his own unhappiness in there as well.” (Januszczak from Gill, p. 47)
I am afraid that Januszczak’s distaste for representational art oozes from every pore. His interesting insight into the elevated railway has to be hedged round with a total rejection of Hopper and all he stood for.
The hotel room or holiday chalet is a popular motif in Hopper’s work. Even without the laconic title, “Hotel by a Railroad”, (31) we could guess that it was a cheap hotel room as it is sparsely furnished and lacks all the small touches that a wife would add, to turn a house into a home. This older couple, (their hair is greying and the husband is bald on top) are making an overnight stay at an unprepossessing spot right beside the railroad tracks.
31. “Hotel by a Railroad” by Edward Hopper, 1952
Neither of them is speaking or looking at the other. The husband is quietly smoking and looking out of the window at a wholly unappealing view, while his wife, down to her slip, sits quietly reading. What a strange subject for a work of art. It is an uninteresting location, with unexciting people and nothing is happening. Why would Hopper choose to do this?’
A somewhat similar, but more intimate scene is portrayed in “Hotel Room”. (32) A young woman sits on the edge of the bed in her underwear reading a thick book. She has arrived in the room fairly recently because her leather grip and suitcase stand unopened blocking the centre of the small room. She has kicked off her black shoes, put her cloche hat on the wardrobe, and thrown her dress over the green armchair.
This lady is clearly more attractive and interesting than the elderly couple, but still the questions persist. Why has Hopper chosen to make her the subject of his painting? He has not posed her in kind of special way; she is simply sitting and reading. Why is there such a clutter in the room? If Hopper has painted it this way he must have his reasons.
I turned to Rolf Günther Renner again, and a little of the mist clears. He refers to three “hotel room” studies, Hotel by a Railroad, (31), Hotel Room, (32), and Hotel Lobby noting that they all “operate in a similarly ambiguous manner”.
32. “Hotel Room” by Edward Hopper, 1931
“The half-dressed woman (32) sitting on the bed reading expresses physicality and vulnerability, and her absorption in the book prompts thoughts of a narrative context, of events that may have led up to her sitting alone in the hotel room.”
“In Hotel by a Railroad” (31) Hopper again encodes his content. The man and woman are not looking, at each other, and the very absorption of the two people in their own interests establishes both common ground and the customary sense of demarcation.
This is emphasized by the curtailed perspective. Through the window, at an angle to the direction the man is looking in, we can see a wall and a closed window. In the mirror (which, together with the window, is the heart of the composition) we see nothing but unclear reflections of colours.
The woman’s attention is fixed on her book, the man’s on something we cannot see outside, and our own sightlines end in walls, closed windows and blind mirrors; the picture creates a sophisticated interplay of dynamics, boundaries and surfaces. And it also highlights the shortfall between projected wishes and what is really seen.” (p. 71 Renner)
It seems that the lives of, not only the elderly couple, but also the young woman are hemmed in by a whole series of barriers which inhibit their freedom of action.
33. “Summer Evening” by Edward Hopper, 1947
This is a detail from a picture about double the size. I have categorised “Summer Evening” as an “invasion of privacy” because although the young couple are out of doors, they appear to be having a private conversation and would not welcome anyone butting in. The building is possibly a motel room or a holiday chalet, and it is surrounded by heavy black shadows.
There are no obvious barriers of any kind between the couple and the viewer, so it would be difficult for Renner to sustain any thesis about restrictions on freedom in this example. However, I find it difficult to accept much of what he says as at all meaningful.
“Our sense that “Cape Cod Evening” (not illustrated here) is a scene of alienation, of the end of domestic rule, without a future, grows on us if we compare the picture with ‘Summer Evening’.” This is an amazing deduction from a painting of two old people outside a house, watching while their dog plays in the grass. How ‘Summer Evening’ confirms this thesis, is beyond me.
“The scene is a verandah at night. Two youngsters are standing in the wan light. It is not; surely, a sad scene of disappointed love; but it is certainly a richly ambivalent scene. The two people are lit as if they were on a stage, almost defenceless and yet with a manifest self-confidence. They are meeting on a clearly defined, circumscribed territory, and the final frontier in Man’s onward progress involves conquest of the woman’s body.
The composition and colours in both works suggest a symbolist element in Hopper’s art.
It is not that specific meanings can be attached to identifiable symbols in these paintings; but Hopper’s evocative method allusively implies narrative contexts and experiential frameworks.” (pp. 73, 76 Renner)
Again I find his conclusions extraordinary. The young couple appear completely relaxed with each other. Either they are a young husband and wife, or an unmarried couple spending a holiday together. At the precise moment of the painting, sex does not seem to be an issue with either of them. He appears to be in earnest conversation with her.
I am glad that Renner agrees, (as do a range of American commentators), that there are Symbolist aspects to Hopper’s work, but if no specific meanings can be attached to the symbols, of what use are they? As symbols they are meaningless. That was not at all what the Symbolists were about.
34. “Morning Sun” by Edward Hopper, 1952
The woman faces the sun in a bare room, (another hotel?) with a view over a townscape. The strong sunlight bleaches the colour of her skin, and the brightly coloured slip. Why has Hopper chosen this subject? He has not posed her body, or striven for any erotic effect. The woman is simply in the best position to enjoy the warming effect of the sun. So why is he drawing our attention to her?
AA Gill comments feelingly, “There is, though, a ray of hope in Hopper’s view of existence, and it’s in the sunlight. Many of his subjects turn to face the light; a moment with the sun on your face is a beneficence, a small blessing. People stare out of windows in their lonely rooms and are baptised in an almost celestial light. It’s light that saves Hopper from nihilism.” (Gill p. 48)
The final selection in this section is a fully nude woman, observed in the inevitable hotel room looking through the open curtains of the window over the inevitable uninspiring townscape. (35)
Renner claims that “it is in Hopper’s paintings of women that show the necessity of seeing his work in wider contexts and not merely in terms of the immediate subjects.” (p. 56)
35. “Morning in a City”, by Edward Hopper, 1944
Renner sees her as vulnerable, standing in a defenceless position, between dark and light, holding a towel in a defensive position as if to ward off the sun. “It is not a study in glamour. Her naked body is merely a thing in the light, a cipher.” (pp. 56-57 Renner)
These Hopper pictures involve a man and a woman, where although nothing obvious is happening it is clear that it might do, given time and opportunity. In “Office at Night”, (36) the young woman is wearing what is ostensibly a plain smart grey business dress. However, she has struck a rather improbable pose where both her full bosom and prominent bottom are displayed simultaneously. She looks across at the rather bloodless junior exec to see if she can draw his attention away from the papers on his desk.
Although the title announces that it is night, the painting gives no clue. A rectangular patch of light seems to come from the window – perhaps from a street light outside.
“Sunlight in a Cafeteria”, (37) deals with a similar theme, but this time it is the man who is showing an overt interest in the girl sitting opposite him in a largely empty cafe.
36. “Office at Night”, by Edward Hopper, 1940
37. “Sunlight in a Cafeteria”, by Edward Hopper, 1958
Renner comments that, “in Sunlight in a Cafeteria the bright light only serves to emphasize that divide that separates the two people. The woman, indifferent to what might be going on around her, and the man, woodenly gazing past her through the window, do not seem to be in the same scene, as it were.
Their sightlines cross at right angles; both are caught in the light. The window itself no longer has the effect of a divide, and if it were not for the potted plant on the sill the boundary between interior and exterior would not be by any means as obvious. The light has the effect of a medium in which the two figures are held in suspended animation; wishes and desires are still present, no doubt, as the phallic salt cellar behind the man suggests.” (Renner, p. 81)
It seems that Renner is determined to find division and separation between the people in Hopper’s pictures, even where none exists.
This early painting still has a French Impressionist feel about it. The popular subject is the “cafe society” as the well-to do couple in evening dress mingle with the workman in his cap, the off-duty “auguste” (white-faced clown), and his bearded artist friend in a beret. The doll-faced woman seems to be apart from and above the other six seated people.
38. “Soir bleu” (Blue evening) by Edward Hopper, 1914
Renner, having nominated “Queensborough Bridge” (10) painted in 1913, as marking “a transition from the European to the American in his art.”, now has to describe the clearly Impressionistic “Soir bleu” as “the artist’s own retrospective on his French, Impressionist-influenced phase. But in addition its psychological coding anticipates work that still lies in the future.” (Renner, pp. 18-19)
What this psychological coding might be is not revealed by Renner, but we already know he thinks that “no specific meanings can be attached to identifiable symbols in these paintings”…but Hopper “allusively implies narrative contexts and experiential frameworks.”
As before, if no specific meanings can be attached to the symbols, of what use are they? How is it that Hopper’s work produces such powerful effects in the viewer if the symbols are meaningless? Perhaps Gill is correct. The viewer knows that something, probably unpleasant, is about to happen.
39.”Chop Suey” (detail) by Edward Hopper, 1929
This is about half of a larger work. Although painted much later the same doll-like face appears, with heavy, pale make-up, rouged cheeks and a bright-red rosebud mouth. The two young women are wearing the cloche (bell-shaped) hats of the 1920s.
Renner considers that “the windows have the effect of boundaries, and direct our attention all the more closely to the interior. Through the window at back left we see only geometrical shapes, and it is impossible to tell whether they represent a house wall beyond or the distorted reflection of the sky.”
“The face of the woman gazing towards us, heavily made up, makes a rigid, puppet-like impression. This applies particularly to the woman in green, who is not so much looking at her vis-a-vis as out of the picture – at us. The woman in the red hat at the rear looks even more rigid: we see only her profile. Her dinner companion seems lost in a world of his own, and his features are lost too, in shadow.” (Renner, p. 67)
40. “Automat”, by Edward Hopper, 1927
The young woman in this painting is portrayed in a more restrained fashion, but the little round face, pale complexion, and red mouth give her a doll-like persona.
Renner notes that “her almost unseeing pose, her alienation and silence, are intensified by the geometry of the picture and the unoccupied chair. The straight rectangularity of the window is compensated by the line of lights reflected in the pane, receding into the distance. That distance is deceptive, since it is no more than a reflection of an interior. The truth is that the window affords no view of anything outside; it emphasizes the geometrical regularity of the restaurant and confines the woman in a glass-house.”
Hopper painted nudes for the whole of his life. The earliest one illustrated in this essay, (5), “Painter and Model” 1902-1904, was a student exercise. Almost all the rest of his nudes were of his wife, Josephine (Jo) Nivison, whom he married in 1924. This is not uncommon among artists; Rene Magritte painted his wife Georgette throughout his career, (42) and Salvador Dali made Gala, his lifelong companion, the subject of many of his works. (41)
However, it was not quite so free in Hopper’s case As AA Gill explains, “The model for all Hopper’s female figures was his wife, Josephine. She insisted on it, including being the stripper in ‘Girlie Show (1941)’. Theirs was a difficult marriage. They argued continually and viciously. He may well have hit her. Yet they remained together. This miserable marriage was one of the two defining relationships of his life.” (Gill, p. 47)
41. “Leda Atomica” Salvador Dali, 1949 42. “Attempting the Impossible” Rene Magritte 1928
For this reason it is instructive to see some of the nudes Hopper painted before he married Jo. The “Standing Female Model in Studio” (43), was produced while he was at the Chase School in New York. It is a rather discreet nude, but the charcoal sketch captures the shapely delicacy of the young professional model.
By contrast, “Summer Interior” (44) was painted in 1909, after two visits to France, and before he met Jo. It is altogether franker and more naturalistic, with its depiction of pubic hair, than what he had painted before, or was to paint in future. The model has been asked to take up a rather stylised pose with one elbow on the bed, as she sits partly on a sheet, and partly on a rug. She bows her head so that her face is not seen. It is possible that the model is a female friend of Hopper’s, prepared to sit for him in the nude, but not keen to be recognised in the portrait.
Hopper’s “Reclining Nude” (45) is probably Jo, seen from behind, as it was painted between 1924 and 1927, and they married in 1924. The inscription on the watercolour says, ‘to Josephine Hopper, Edward Hopper’. He would hardly present her with the image of another woman.
43. “Standing Female Model in Studio” charcoal sketch by Edward Hopper, 1900-03
44. “Summer Interior” by Edward Hopper, 1909
45 “Reclining Nude” by Edward Hopper, 1924 – 1927,
Renner observed that “Relatively early in his career Hopper was already approaching his nudes from a characteristic, unmistakably voyeuristic stance. Reclining Nude (45) for instance, implies a situation in which this view of the naked woman has been stolen: she supposes herself unobserved, and has snuggled into a pile of pillows in a spirit of pleasurable, dreamy abandon.” (Renner, p. 15)
AA Gill reaches much the same conclusions. “There is a peeking element of voyeurism in Hopper’s work. He stands outside, looking in at people glimpsed through windows or surreptitiously spied across the carriage, the lobby, the next table. He seems to be stalking buildings and rooms.
Using his bitter, bickering wife as a model for every woman has removed the slightest hint of sexuality from his female figures. He is possibly the least erotic 20th-century painter. Even when he puts his characters in bed or in intimate rooms, they are utterly without sexual intent. Even when the burlesque stripper strides gawkily onto the stage, (46) the most prominent member of the audience has his head turned away, seemingly uninterested.
46. Drawing for “Girlie Show” by Edward Hopper 1941
The issue of voyeurism raised by Gill and Renner has already been alluded to in my section entitled, “Intrusion into Privacy” as a recurring theme in Hopper’s choice of subject matter. To make a comparison with Hopper’s approach to the female nude I have added works from two Surrealist artists who were excellent representational painters, Dali and Picabia.
47. “My Wife, Naked, Looking at her Own Body…” Salvador Dali, 1945
The painting of Gala is not only beautiful and erotic, but we can join her in examining the bodily transformation which stands in front of her. It does not appear that we as viewers are intruding; it seems rather that we have been invited to look, and perhaps, to comment.
The woman in Picabia’s painting (48) reacts as though she has been disturbed but she does not appear to be unduly concerned about it. It is a beautiful, erotic and accurate painting. The artist’s use of the mirror gives us both front and back views, so that we see her breasts in profile and full face. Both her bottom and belly are displayed, a ‘two for the price of one’ approach, which was influenced by the circumstances in which Picabia found himself.
Francis Picabia (1879-1953) was a Frenchman, living in North Africa, when he painted this picture (48) in 1943, during the Second World War. His country, mainland France, was partly occupied by German forces, and the remainder (Vichy France) was under strong German influence. The French North African colonies were also under Vichy control.
48. “Naked Woman in Front of a Mirror” by Francis Picabia, 1943
This had a bearing on Picabia’s choice of subjects. The Nazis hated abstract art and had a record of burning such work when they came across it. Picabia needed to paint to earn a living so he chose safe, representational subjects and nudes were popular.
AA Gill’s retorted that Hopper’s use of “his wife as a model for every woman has removed the slightest hint of sexuality from his female figures.” This is amply borne out in, “Morning in a City”, (35) already appearing in this essay in the context of “Intrusion into Privacy”. A more straightforward nude, “A Woman in the Sun” (49) again bears out the proposition.
Renner claims that there are “dualities and tensions which force the viewer to reassess” what statement a picture is making. A Woman in the Sun (49) confirms this. The naked woman standing in a narrow strip of sunlight arouses conflicting feelings. On the one hand she seems self-confident and has a perfectly natural sense of her body. On the other hand she looks defenceless; and the shadows of her legs are long and thin, contributing a sense of fragility. The relatively dark room admittedly has a snug, secure atmosphere, but the frontiers are uncertain.
Outside the window in the background are two hills, with a powerful swell like deep waves in the sea. Together with the bright, intrusive light they give an impression of Nature invading the sanctuary of the room: in a conventional interior, of all places, Nature is going about its business of re-conquest.” (Renner, p. 77) This seems to me like sheer nonsense.
49. “A Woman in the Sun” by Edward Hopper 1961
50. “Eleven AM” by Edward Hopper 1926
“Eleven AM” shows a woman who presumably should be at work. Not only is she still not dressed, but has not put a stitch of clothing on as she gazes out of the window into the street. The whiteness of her body stands out from the black leather chair and the dark furniture and drapes.
Landscapes and Townscapes
There has been some examination of Hopper’s work on landscapes and townscapes in the early stages of his career when he was very much under the influence of French Impressionism. We return to the topic in terms of his mature work.
AA Gill claims that, “Hopper was the end of a cul-de-sac. Nobody came after him, and yet there is this palpable atmosphere about his work, his compelling gaze. He glazes the mundane with menace and dread. It’s film that seems to be the most obvious influence on his images. He takes the convention of film noir and marries it with the older convention of landscape painting. The result is a disturbing sense of unease often described as loneliness.” (Gill, p.42)
He goes on to explain these landscape ideas in terms of particular paintings.
“One of the most threatening and successful of these bland images is Gas (51). It’s simply a picture of three petrol pumps on a long road. The subject is so anodyne, so utterly familiar, yet it appears as threatening and fearful as a Goya nightmare. Again the focus of the disease is not actually in the picture. Hopper connects with the viewer’s shared experience of driving long distances in North America, the low-level worry of running out of gas on a deserted road.
51. “Gas” by Edward Hopper 1940
And then that surreal feeling of stopping in one of these little oases set in the vastness of the continent. Many films, from Stagecoach to Duel, use the weirdness and danger of fuel pit stops. Hopper taps into all of that with this simple painting. None of this verdigris of outside influence should detract from Hopper’s innate brilliance in accessing it. It’s a miraculous act of artistry, as clever as any bit of mannerist chiaroscuro.”
I’ve driven past this petrol station on Cape Cod, where Hopper spent most of his life. I went back with a copy of the painting to find the viewpoint and to stare. The pumps have changed, of course, but it was still recognisable and completely, utterly bereft of any atmosphere, any frisson of menace. Nothing. Todoli of Tate Modern says this picture is a great American Calgary, a crucifixion. The three pumps represent three crosses, and petrol is the holy spirit of America, he adds.” (Gill, p. 44)
(Doesn’t Todoli’s comment give an idea of some of the bloody fools in charge of the big state galleries?)
52. “Lighthouse Hill” by Edward Hopper 1927
“Cape Cod is famous for its light. Hopper is, above all, a painter of light — not in the impressionist sense of saturated colour, but as the expressionists used it, as a metaphor, a symbol and a tool. In his works, the light makes no judgment.
Two subjects that Hopper returns to are the lighthouse and the cinema. They are symbolic of loneliness and hope. The escape and solace of the movies, and the lighthouse, safety and guidance. Light shining in the darkness.
Paul Klee memorably said that the art of drawing was the art of omission, and no artist leaves out more to greater effect than Hopper. He offers us sparse sets and characters without dialogue; we bring the emotion, the associations and the plots. And perhaps the reason he remains so popular, and why this exhibition is so timely, is that he shows an America that is lonely and unsure and altogether more insecure, but a great deal more profound and thoughtful than the one that we have been seeing such a lot of recently.” (Gill, p. 48)
REFERENCES TO SOURCES
Rolf Günther Renner (Art Historian)
The major source of images for this essay is “Edward Hopper – Transformation of the Real” by Rolf Günther Renner, translated by Michael Hulse, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1993, henceforth referred to as “Renner”. Where I use Renner’s words they are in quotation marks and attributed.
Although I have drawn heavily on Renner’s book for images, I find his analysis of Hopper’s work uncongenial to me, and consequently much of this essay represents my own ideas and words. The book is most valuable for its description of the history of the man and his development as an artist.
Renner believed that Hopper’s pictures are “intended to reveal the fractures beneath the painted skin of modern life.” (p. 7) He also thought that Hopper’s view of landscape reflected the idea of “the Frontier, that meeting of Man and Nature that was so crucial to the American identity…and as the myth of endless opportunity became ossified…so too the image of Nature …was scored by civilizations many blemishes, by streets, railroad crossings and lighthouses.” (p. 7)
“His paintings tend not to offer us extensive panoramas; rather they limit the view. Hopper often substitutes an interior seen through a window, or window prospects limited by houses or other aspects of the civilised world, for an unrestricted view of Nature.” (p. 7)
Andrew Gill (Journalist)
The other source of images and comment is an article by AA (Andrew) Gill, “The Hitchcock of Painting” published by the Sunday Times (25 April 2004) in advance of a Hopper exhibition at the Tate Modern in May of that year. Gill is a journalist with an Art College background. Images taken from his article are henceforth referred to as “Gill”. I find many of his insights valuable and where I use Gill’s words they are in quotation marks and attributed.
“The canvases of Edward Hopper appear to show innocent, everyday scenes. But on closer inspection his gas stations, bars and offices have as much brooding menace as a clip from Psycho. What, asks AA Gill, was America’s most cinematic artist trying to tell us?” (Gill, p.38)
“His art inhabits a time all of its own, unrelated and unbothered by events. His last pictures of interiors, painted in the 1960s, are populated by figures still dressed for the 1940s… Vicente Todoli, the new Spanish director of Tate Modern, says that Hopper finds a particular resonance in Europe because he paints an existentialist isolation and angst that’s a central concept of our old-world art. Maybe, but it hardly begins to explain the enigma of what makes Hopper such a consistently popular artist with the public and the critics.
His subject matter is willfully dull, as if chosen to repel interest. Neither was he a painter of his time. His contemporaries, the other abstract expressionists whom he despised, were taking art and making it psycho-analytical, jazzy and modern, while Hopper was left with his late 19th-century, Frenchish conventions, and images that were Teflon to intellectual observation or extrapolation.
Hopper was the end of a cul-de-sac. Nobody came after him, and yet there is this palpable atmosphere about his work, his compelling gaze. He glazes the mundane with menace and dread. But it’s film that seems to be the most obvious influence on his images. The odd points of view, the angles, the portraits of houses that look like establishing shots. Hopper looks at things from above or below, moving a composition so that it resembles a frame pulled from a panning shot. He takes the convention of film noir and marries it with the older convention of landscape painting. The result is a disturbing sense of unease often described as loneliness.
The cinematic nature of his pictures implies that often the true object or subject isn’t recorded at all. It might be happening outside the frame, or is about to happen. As with Hitchcock movies, the tension builds over purposefully mundane and innocent images, but we know that something shocking is imminent. The longer it takes, the worse the suspense. Well, in Hopper’s pictures of black-windowed houses and deserted urban landscapes, the suspense keens like a continuous violin note, always unresolved.” (Gill, p.42-44)
Waldemar Januszczak (Art Critic)
The article, by AA Gill, also includes a brief box of text from the British-born art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, who provides the conventional current view of the establishment art world. Again, where I use Januszczak’s words they are in quotation marks and attributed.
“Now regarded as an inspired American genius, Hopper was mocked as unfashionable in his day says Waldemar Januszczak.”
“Have you ever been on the L train at night? The L train runs from Brooklyn, across the East river, and into 14th Street in Manhattan… and this one-off, isolated line is the one that Edward Hopper used to get to and from work in the 1920s and 30s.”
“Hopper is an isolated one-off whose paintings seem to be going in the opposite direction to everyone else’s in American art. Even if you haven’t been on the L, you can easily get a sense of what the journey was like by inspecting some of his evocative paintings of what he saw from the elevated stretches. Secretaries in offices bent suggestively over their filing cabinets, couples in hotel rooms sitting by their bags, “Nighthawks” in cafes hunched over their beers, people at work, people after work, nobody smiling, nobody happy.”
“He married in 1924 and divided his life thereafter between Brooklyn and Massachusetts. At one place, he painted the urban isolation he glimpsed from the windows of the L; at the other he painted the loneliness of the dull clapboard suburbs. And that’s about it, late-night urban ennui versus late-afternoon suburban ennui, two homes, two settings, one mood.”
These days, Hopper is recognised as one of the greatest American painters of the 20th century. Nobody has captured the emptiness and melancholy of modern American life more evocatively than him. But while he was alive, many people thought he was out of date, though, ironically, he was admired by several of the abstract expressionists whose work he so hated.
Having settled on his preferred figurative style in the 1920s, he kept it up, pretty much unchanged, for the next 40 years. In Hopper’s art, the 1930s never end. His moods always remain cinematic and noirish. All his life he was a voyeur peeping through the window into other people’s unhappiness. All his life he saw his own unhappiness in there as well.” (Januszczak, from Gill, p. 47)
1. Edward Hopper, Self Portrait, (1925-30) aged 43 to 48 (Renner)
2. An Example of Hopper’s Highly Successful Commercial Art (Renner)
3. “Six o’ Clock” Charles Burchfield, 1936 (Renner)
4. Andrew Wyeth (google images)
5. “Painter and Model” 1902-1904 Oil paint on Cardboard (Renner)
6. Edward Hopper in Paris, 1907 (Renner)
7. “The Pont des Arts”, Paris, by Edward Hopper, 1907 (Renner)
8. “Le Quay des Grands Augustins”, Paris, 1909 (Renner)
9. “Le Pont Royal”, Paris, 1909 (Renner)
10. “Queensborough Bridge”, New York, 1913, (Renner)
11. “Le Pont d’Argenteuil”, (The Seine Bridge at Argenteuil) Claude Monet, 1874 (“Claude Monet” by Karin Sagner-Düchting, translated by Karen Williams, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1999)
12. “St. Germain-l’Auxerrois”, Paris, by Claude Monet, 1867 (Sagner-Düchting, op. cit.)
13. “Les Toits”, (Roofs) by Paul Cézanne, 1877 (“Paul Cézanne” by Uhlrike Becks-Malorny, translated by Phil Goddard, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1995)
14. “The City” by Edward Hopper 1927, (Renner)
15. “La Falaise a Dieppe” by Claude Monet, 1882 (Sagner-Düchting, op. cit.)
16. “Blackhead, Monhegan” by Edward Hopper 1916-19 (Renner)
17. “Norham Castle, Sunrise” by J M W Turner c 1835-40, (“Turner” by William Hardy, Eagle Editions, 2002)
18. “The Cyclops” by Odilon Redon, 1898-1900, (“Symbolism” by Michael Gibson, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1999)
19. “The Sacred Wood” by Arnold Böcklin, 1882 (Gibson, op. cit.)
20. “The Pink House” by William Degouve de Nuncques 1892 (Gibson, op. cit.)
21.”The Uncertainty of the Poet” by Giorgio de Chirico, 1913 (“Essential Surrealists” Tim Martin, Parragon 1993)
22. “The Great War” by Renee Magritte, 1964 (Martin, op. cit.)
23. “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali, 1931(Salvador Dali” by Robert Descharmes and Gilles Néret, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1999)
24. “House by the Railroad” by Edward Hopper 1925 (Renner)
24B. “The Little House of Horrors” after Edward Hopper (Renner)
25. “Railroad Crossing” by Edward Hopper 1922 – 1923 (Renner)
25B. “Lurking Animals” after Edward Hopper (Renner)
26. “Drug Store” by Edward Hopper 1927 (Renner)
27. “Rooms for Tourists”, by Edward Hopper 1943 (Renner)
28. “L’Empire des Lumieres” by René Magritte, 1954 (“René Magritte” by Jaques Meuris, translated by Michael Scuffil, Benedikt Tashen Verlag, 1999)
29. “Night Hawks” by Edward Hopper, 1942 (Renner)
29B. Night Hawks” (detail) by Edward Hopper 1942, (Renner)
30. “First Row Orchestra” by Edward Hopper 1951 (Gill)
31. “Hotel by a Railroad” by Edward Hopper, 1952 (Renner)
32. “Hotel Room” by Edward Hopper, 1931 (Renner)
33. “Summer Evening” by Edward Hopper, 1947 (Renner)
34. “Morning Sun” by Edward Hopper, 1952 (Renner)
35. “Morning in a City”, by Edward Hopper, 1944 (Renner)
36. “Office at Night”, by Edward Hopper, 1940 (Renner)
37. “Sunlight in a Cafeteria”, by Edward Hopper, 1958 (Renner)
38. “Soir bleu” (Blue evening) by Edward Hopper, 1914 (Renner)
39.”Chop Suey” (detail) by Edward Hopper, 1929 (Renner)
40. “Automat”, by Edward Hopper, 1927 (Renner)
41. “Leda Atomica” by Salvador Dali, 1949, (Descharmes and Néret op. cit.)
42. “Attempting the Impossible” Rene Magritte 1928 (Meuris, op. cit.)
43. “Standing Female Model in Studio” by Edward Hopper, 1900-03 (Renner)
44. “Summer Interior” by Edward Hopper, 1909 (Renner)
45. “Reclining Nude” by Edward Hopper, 1924 – 1927, (Renner)
46. Drawing for “Girlie Show” by Edward Hopper 1941 (Renner)
47. “My Wife, Naked, Looking at her Own Body…” Salvador Dali, 1945 (Descharmes and Néret op. cit.)
48. “Naked Woman in Front of a Mirror” by Francis Picabia, 1943 (Martin, op. cit.)
49. “A Woman in the Sun” by Edward Hopper, 1961 (Renner)
50. “Eleven AM” by Edward Hopper 1926 (Gill)
51. “Gas” by Edward Hopper 1940 (Gill)
52. “Lighthouse Hill” by Edward Hopper 1927 (Renner)
Alan Mason, August – September 2011.