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Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter, printmaker and illustrator. He was brought up in a town on the Hudson River, where he developed an enduring love of nautical life. When he graduated from Nyack Union High School in 1899, his parents, although supportive of his artistic aspirations, implored him to study commercial illustration rather than pursue an economically uncertain career in fine art. He studied with the Correspondence School of Illustrating in New York City (1899–1900). He continued to study illustration at the New York School of Art (1900–1906), under Arthur Keller (1866–1925) and Frank Vincent Du Mond (1865–1951), but began to study painting and drawing after a year. Hopper began in the portrait and still-life classes of William Merrit Chase, to whose teaching he later referred only infrequently and disparagingly. He preferred the classes he took with Kenneth Hayes Miller and especially those of Robert Henri. Hopper’s skill won his fellow students’ respect, as well as honours in the school where, by 1905, he was teaching Saturday classes.

In 1906 Hopper worked part-time as an illustrator for an advertising agency founded by one of his former classmates, the illustrator Coles Phillips (1880–1927). In the autumn of that year Hopper went to Paris to study works by European artists at first hand, educating himself by visiting museums and exhibitions. The many paintings that he produced in Paris were painted en plein air, partly through lack of studio space in his rented room and partly in emulation of the Impressionists. In response to the intense sunlight he adopted a lighter palette, the result of which can be seen in Tugboat at the Boulevard St-Michel (1907; New York, Whitney). In late June he went on a tour of London, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels, returning to New York at the end of August 1907. There he tried to paint while working several days a week as an illustrator for trade magazines and fiction, including Adventure and Scribner’s. He detested this work and in later life was loath to discuss it, even to the point of concealing his illustrations.

Hopper first exhibited in March 1908, in a group show held in the former Harmonie Club building in New York, organized by some of Henri’s former students in protest at the conservative taste of the juries of the National Academy. He returned to Paris for four months in 1909 and briefly in 1910, when he also visited Spain. Although Hopper never again went abroad, French culture had a lasting impact on him. He read French literature, particularly Symbolist poetry, and admired a number of French painters, including Degas.

From 1910 Hopper continued to work as an illustrator in New York, but he spent his summers painting in rural New England, in Gloucester and Cape Anne, MA, and Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, ME. In 1913 he moved to Washington Square, in the Greenwich Village area of New York City, which remained his permanent base. Hopper’s first sale of a painting, Sailing (1911; Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie Inst.), was at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, popularly known as the Armory Show (1913); he did not sell another until ten years later. Hopper was more successful with his etchings, which he made from 1915, in both sales and exhibitions. Ironically, however, it was as an illustrator that he first won fame, when he received top prize for his poster Smash the Hun (1918; see Levin, 1980, p. 144) in a wartime competition. In January 1920 Hopper held his first one-man exhibition, of 16 paintings at the Whitney Studio Club. He was discouraged by the failure of the exhibition to achieve either sales or critical attention, his growing reputation as a printmaker underlining his lack of success as a painter.

In 1923 Hopper re-established contact with Josephine Verstille Nivison, whom he had known at art school. She encouraged him to take up watercolour, a medium which he had used only for illustration. Working in the open air, Hopper painted his first watercolours with great facility, realistically depicting seascapes and architecture, for example The Mansard Roof (1923; New York, Brooklyn Mus.), one of a group of watercolours singled out for praise by the critics the following autumn. After his marriage to Jo Nivison on 9 July 1924 he painted more watercolours in Gloucester; soon after their return to New York, Hopper had his second one-man exhibition, his first in a commercial gallery, at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery, where he remained for the rest of his career. The exhibition was both a commercial and a critical success: all eleven watercolours exhibited, and five additional ones, were sold.

In 1925 Hopper painted House by the Railroad, which became the first painting by any artist to be acquired for MOMA, New York. This canvas of a solitary 19th-century Second Empire-style house, standing starkly alone against the railway tracks, has become a famous image in American art, evoking the passage of time. Nationalistic critics, who had come to view Hopper’s work as typically American, also praised his realism and personal content in works such as Early Sunday Morning (1930; New York, Whitney), depicting an empty street and shop façades. In 1933 Alfred H. Barr organized Hopper’s first retrospective for MOMA, setting off a critical debate over whether Hopper was sufficiently modern to be exhibited there.

From 1930 Hopper and his wife began to spend their summers painting in Truro on Cape Cod, MA, where they built their own home in 1934. The view over the bay from this simple house designed by Hopper inspired his later canvas Rooms by the Sea (1951; New Haven, CT, Yale U., A.G.). During the early 1930s Hopper found ample subject-matter for both his oils and watercolours in Cape Cod, until the area became too familiar, and he was prompted to drive further afield, from Vermont to Mexico, in search of inspiration.

A feeling of loneliness and detachment pervaded Hopper’s works in the second half of his career. Rarely was there any definite evidence of communication between the figures, for example in Hotel Lobby (1943; Indianapolis, IN, Mus. A.). He frequently depicted solitary figures in works such as New York Movie (1939; New York, MOMA), where the focus is not on the film audience but rather on the blonde usherette, who seems unaware of both the film and the spectator. The harsh realism of Hopper’s style was underscored by his preference for bright, shadow-casting light, seen in Office at Night (1940; Minneapolis, MN, Walker A. Cent.), or the strange luminosity of dusk, combined with artificial light in Gas (1940; New York, MOMA), a painting of a solitary man in an empty petrol station, in which a long shadow is cast by the light from the building on the right. In 1942 Hopper painted Nighthawks, an evocative canvas depicting people in an all-night diner.

The emergence of Abstract Expressionism meant that Hopper’s style came to be regarded as illustrative, a painful comparison for a painter who had disdained illustration. His second retrospective in 1950 at the Whitney Museum, New York, was regarded by many as the work of an enduring realist maintaining an obsolete style. In 1956 Time magazine featured a cover story on Hopper, emphasizing his historical significance in the American Realist tradition of John Singleton Copley and Thomas Eakins. By the time of his third retrospective (1964) at the Whitney Museum, critics in a generation of Pop artists and Photorealists hailed him as the forefather of the new avant-garde. Hopper, however, viewed the entire process with much cynicism, knowing that he had consistently created realist paintings that expressed personal meaning. The Whitney Museum houses a large collection of his work.

Gail Levin
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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