Summary of Edward Hopper
No one captured the isolation of the individual within the modern city like Edward Hopper. His imagery of figures within urban settings go well beyond their role as modern cityscapes, exposing the underbelly of the human experience. So while his oeuvre officially falls within the rubric of Realism, it offers a far more evocative look at life between the World Wars. Indeed, by providing a minimum of action, stripping away almost any sign of life or mobility, and adding dramatic means of representation with striking lighting schemes in claustrophobic spaces, Hopper suggests something of the psychological inner life of his subjects, leading the way towards Abstract Expressionism. He injected significance, and the weight of the individual's existential being in the modern metropolis or in country life, into what otherwise might appear to be straight-forward images of everyday life.
- Hopper's imagery is consistently restrained, presenting part of a story or one suggestive aspect. By leaving many clues but no specific answers, he forces the viewer to complete the narrative. This element of his art would have major repercussions for the development of postmodernism wherein the viewer has a major role in the understanding of the artwork.
- Hopper's individuals, usually depicted isolated and disconnected from their environments either literally by glass windows or metaphorically through formal means, are manifestations of the artist's focus on the solitude of modern life. The starkness of detail and unmodulated revelatory light in many works builds a tension, drawing the viewer's attention away from the given subject, and suggesting much about his emotional experience. In this way, the artist's work acts as a bridge between the interest in everyday life exhibited by the contemporary Ashcan School and the exploration of mood by later existential artists.
- Many of the houses depicted by Hopper, animated through artistic means, set apart from their environs, lit with a blanching light which dramatically highlights and casts into shadow, viewed from evocative angles, have provided inspiration to the film making industry.
Important Art by Edward Hopper
House by the Railroad
House by the Railroad is, like other Hopper works, about a lot more than its simple title indicates. This three-story Victorian house with its distinctive Mansard roof sits alone on an elevated plane cut off from the viewer by the harsh horizontal denotation of a railroad track. Hopper further alienates the viewer by drawing the shades in the house, closing off all opportunity for contact between those who reside inside and the threatening march forward of modern life signified by the railroad tracks. The interplay between the world depicted and that of the viewer no doubt provoked the dialogue explored later in the postmodern art period. One couldn't begin to appreciate the work of the Abstract Expressionists, for example, without it.
The house itself resembles many found in the New England towns Hopper frequented as well as his native Rockland County. And although Jo suggested that it was imagined, "He did it out of his head," it is widely understood to be based on a house on Rte. 9W in Haverstraw, New York. A member of the family who lived there at the time distinctly recalled seeing Hopper sitting across the road working on a painting of the house.
In 1930, this became the first painting to be acquired by the newly established Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection. Hopper was delighted later on to learn that Alfred Hitchcock used it as inspiration for the house in his 1960 film, "Psycho."
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Hopper's Automat captures a woman who has stepped out of the busy urban scene incumbent with necessary human interaction, taking refuge in the respite provided by a local diner. This image perfectly captures Hopper's brilliant depictions of the isolation of the individual within the modern urban city. The main figure is depicted sitting alone at a table, staring pensively down at her coffee. The fact that she still wears one glove, having removed the other, indicates this will be a brief stop and that she'll soon hurry on to another destination. By definition, automats (self-service restaurants where the food and drinks were dispensed through vending machines) suggest isolated experiences, the opportunity to pick up a meal without exchanging pleasantries. This subject probably had great appeal to the reticent, slightly antisocial Hopper. Of additional interest is her delineation from an adjacent table, suggesting the presence of an unidentified viewer. The idea of a voyeur's gaze on a lonely, dejected single woman was exhibited in Impressionistic masterpieces such as Édouard Manet's The Plum (c. 1877) and Edgar Degas's L'Absinthe (1876). Hopper surpasses these images by elevating the significance of the setting to a level on par with that of the figure, emphasizing the automat's function as a busy venue where, despite the autonomous act of retrieving food from a machine, crowds are the norm. Psychological nuance is added by focusing on a woman sunk in loneliness despite being in a place consistently flooded with people.
Des Moines Art Center
In Ground Swell, Hopper depicts a catboat occupied by four young men and a woman facing a growing swell. The artist made numerous studies of boats as a child growing up in Nyack, and his passion for seascapes and nautical subjects is noted throughout his oeuvre. Nevertheless, as with many of his works, this painting goes well beyond its role as seascape. Despite what looks to be a clear day, the dark shape of the bell buoy symbolizes impending doom as does the boat's dramatic dip to a nearly 45-degree angle. This painting was produced in Hopper's Cape Cod studio between August and September of 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe. There is some suggestion that it symbolically represents the loss of innocence in the face of an uncertain, ominous future.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Office at Night
Office at Night depicts a woman and a man alone in an office. The woman, ostensibly the secretary, stands at a filing cabinet looking at a piece of paper that seems to have just fallen on the floor. The man at the desk seems oblivious to her. A shaft of light pours in through the window. In the lower left corner of the image there is a typewriter, indicative of functionality and perhaps, the woman's role. Hopper elevates what might be a simple scene of everyday life within an office through an extremely raised angle of perspective. The psychological tension between the figures depicted within the room is achieved through the resultant compression of space which limits the figures' ability to move about.
Several years after the Walker Art Center purchased this painting, Hopper wrote them the following explanation: "The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the "L" train in New York after dark, and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind. My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior." Hopper was a frequent train traveler and was always struck by the slices of life witnessed through passing windows.
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
Hopper's Gas offers a perfect example of the artist's ability to raise a simple subject with no action to that of a psychologically-charged one. Here he depicts a single figure, a lone gas station attendant, within an overall quiet and bleak setting enlivened slightly by the presence of red gas pumps. The insignificance of the figure within the overall effect of the image is clarified by the dramatic treatment of the environs. His use of light alone, spilling across the grounds and illuminating the surrounding space, as well as drawing the viewer beyond the station to a dark mass of trees through the obvious use of linear perspective, emphasize his focus. According to Jo Hopper's record books, this painting depicts a gas station at "late twilight." As she wrote to Hopper's sister Marion, "Ed is about to start a canvas - the effect of night on a gasoline station..." Though many have speculated about the location of the gas station, Hopper claims it was improvised, made up from his memory of a number of similar places. Jo's letter to Marion explains that they drove around looking for lit gas stations at twilight and were sometimes thwarted by the fact that they were often not illuminated until it got much darker. From this correspondence and the painting itself it is understood that Hopper received data from on-site observation, sketching the gas pumps directly and then reimaged the details back in the studio until he felt he'd arrived at the right compositional solution.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Nighthawks depicts four figures in a sparsely furnished diner at night. A single light source illuminates the interior and spills outward toward the exterior. This work, with its simplicity of setting and dramatic lighting, excellently illustrates Hopper's interest in the themes of alienation, melancholy and ambiguous relationships. None of the four figures in this picture interact with one another and we are given to understand that this is the norm and that we are witnessing an unfolding narrative with limited emotional development. Open-ended narratives of this nature are typical of Hopper and demand the active role of the viewer in completing the story.
Nighthawks is considered the embodiment existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness indicative of modern urban life. While Hopper did not set out to express a particular emotional state in the image, he did acknowledge that: "Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city." The sense of the figures' isolation is heightened by the large window which creates an implicit barrier between the viewer and subjects. The viewers are outsiders, voyeurs, not privy to the real story, but, nevertheless, urged to draw our own conclusions regarding the drama depicted. While mostly devoid of revelatory details, a few familiar objects in this picture, such as the salt and peppershakers, napkin holder, and coffee urns, provide a bit of context. Hopper claimed that the setting was loosely based on a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, in New York. Yet, like most of Hopper's oils, what started as an image of a place became, through his process of executing numerous studies, more a suggestion of that place, a composite of many he knew and the work of his imagination.
The significance of this painting was recognized soon after its completion when The Art Institute of Chicago purchased it for $3,000. Today it is the most requested and sought after image in their collection.
The Art Institute of Chicago
This work was produced late in Hopper's life, when he was nearly 70 years old. Nevertheless it embodies the same themes of existentialism noted throughout his oeuvre, connecting him with the parallel efforts of contemporary artists such as Andrew Wyeth. The latter's exploration of Christina's world shares much of the same sentiment and effect. In Hopper's painting a woman (his wife Jo at age 68), is noted sitting upright on a neatly-made bed, staring out the window. The morning sun streams through the window, raking over the figure and onto the blank wall behind. The artist obscures details of her aging face and figure by a distinct lack of detail; her expression is ambiguous, perhaps pensive, perhaps regretful. As in much of his work, the figure is included to capture a mood or suggest a psychological effect, rather than to serve as the portrait of a specific individual. Beyond embodying dramatic means of delineation noted in other works of early modernism, including stark light, he adopts the window motif in order to add psychological weight, open to varied interpretation, as was done a century earlier by Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich.
Columbus Museum of Art
Second Story Sunlight
This work, focusing on a pair of gabled houses facing the morning sun, offers an excellent example of how Hopper elevated cityscapes to psychological portraits, positively animating the inanimate and injecting it with significance. Two figures sit on the balcony of one of the houses, one a scantily clad young woman perched atop a railing, and the other an elderly woman reading a book. Hopper's wife, Jo, was the model for both figures, as she was for nearly all of those included in his later paintings. As Hopper stated, "I don't think there is any idea of symbolism in the two figures... I was more interested in sunlight on the buildings and on the figures than in any symbolism." Growing up along the banks of the Hudson River with its distinct qualities of light, Hopper became sensitized early in life to what he considered, "a certain elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house." Second Story Sunlight, painted late in his career addresses concerns focused on throughout his lifetime in his quest to render the elusive, shifting character of sunlight, and its suggestive quality. The delineation of the stark white planes of the building facades and those contrasting ones cast in shadow illustrates his efforts toward this goal.
Whitney Museum of American Art
Biography of Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in Nyack, New York, in 1882. His parents introduced Edward, and his older sister Marion, to the arts early in life; they attended the theatre, concerts and other cultural events, and visited museums. His father owned a dry goods store where Hopper sometimes worked as a teen. Hopper described him as "an incipient intellectual... less at home with his books of accounts than with Montaigne's essays." Both his parents were supportive of his artistic inclinations.
As a boy, Hopper was quiet and reserved. He was over six feet tall by his early teens, had few friends, and spent much of his time alone with his books and art. His home in Nyack stood on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, just north of New York City. At the time Nyack was a vibrant hub of transit and industry. There was an active train station, three shipbuilding companies, a port for steamboats, and the cross-Hudson ferry. Young Edward spent his days by the river, sketchpad in hand, observing and drawing the rigging and building of boats. This early period is documented in numerous drawings of boats and ships as well as several handmade wooden model boats. As a teen he built a full-sized catboat and briefly considered pursuing a career in naval architecture. The seriousness with which the artist approached his artistic ambitions had already revealed itself by age 10 when he began to sign and date his drawings.
After graduating high school in 1899, Hopper's parents encouraged him to study commercial illustration instead of fine art. Accordingly, he spent a year at the New York School of Illustration in Manhattan before transferring to the more serious New York School of Art to realize his dream. His teachers there included the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (who founded the school) and Robert Henri, a leading figure of the Ashcan school, whose proponents advocated depicting the grittier side of urban life. Hopper's classmates at the school included George Bellows, Guy Pene du Bois, and Rockwell Kent.
In 1905, Hopper began working as an illustrator for a New York City advertising agency but never really liked illustrating and longed for the freedom to paint from his imagination. Unfortunately, success was slow in coming and he was forced to earn his living as an illustrator for nearly 20 more years until his painting career took off.
Hopper travelled to Europe three times between 1906 and 1910, enjoying two extended stays in Paris. The influence of the Impressionists led him to the streets to draw and paint en plein air, or, as Hopper described it, "from the fact." Years later he would call his work from this period, a form of "modified impressionism." He was especially attracted to Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas's unusual compositional arrangements in their depictions of modern urban life. During a visit to Amsterdam, Hopper also admired Rembrandt's Nightwatch, which called "the most wonderful thing of his I have seen, it's past belief in its reality - it almost amounts to deception."
After returning from his final trip abroad in 1910, Hopper moved permanently to New York City and, in 1913, settled at 3 Washington Square North. This would be his home and studio for the rest of his life. That same year he sold his first painting, Sailing (1911), for $250 at the Armory show in New York. Though he never stopped painting, it would be 11 years before he sold another painting. During that time he continued to earn his living illustrating and, in 1915, he took up printmaking, producing some 70 etchings and dry points over the next decade. Like the paintings for which he would later become renowned, Hopper's etchings embody a sense alienation and melancholy. One of his better known etchings, Night Shadows (1921) features the birds'-eye viewpoint, the dramatic use of light and shadow, and the air of mystery which would serve as inspiration for many film noir movies of the 1940s. Hopper continued to receive great acclaim for his etchings over the years and considered them an essential part of his artistic development. As he wrote, "After I took up etching, my painting seemed to crystallize."
In 1923, Hopper visited Gloucester, Massachusetts. There he became reacquainted with Josephine (Jo) Nivison, whom he had met years earlier as an art student of Robert Henri. He worked in watercolor that summer and it was Jo who encouraged him later that year to join her in participating in a show at the Brooklyn Museum. He exhibited six watercolors there, including The Mansard Roof (1923), which the museum purchased for $100.
In 1924, Hopper married Jo. From that time on she became his primary model and most ardent supporter. In that same year he had a solo exhibition of watercolors at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery in New York. The show sold out and the Rehn Gallery continued to represent him for the rest of his life. This success enabled Hopper to finally give up illustrating.
Over the next several years, Hopper's painting style matured and his signature iconography emerged--from isolated figures in public or private interiors, to sun-soaked architecture, silent streets, and coastal scenes with lighthouses. In 1930, House by the Railroad (1925) became the first painting accessioned to the permanent collection of the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. The early 1930s were, indeed, a period of great success for Hopper, with sales to major museums and in 1933, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Despite his commercial success, Hopper and Jo lived a frugal lifestyle, only allowing themselves the indulgence of attending theatre and films. Hopper particularly loved going to movies. His first documented visit to one was in Paris in 1909. As he explained, "When I don't feel in the mood for painting, I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge."
Early in their marriage the Hoppers spent summers painting in New England, mostly Gloucester and coastal Maine. They also travelled across the country and to Mexico, where they painted watercolors side by side. From 1934, they began spending summers at the house and studio Hopper designed for them in South Truro, Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Hopper continued to be productive during the war years and remained unperturbed by the potential threats following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was precisely during this period that he worked on his most well known painting, Nighthawks (1942). Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Hopper continued to see acclaim and success, despite the arrival of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism to the New York art scene. The universal appeal of his subjects continued to find an avid audience.
Hopper was not a prolific painter. He often found it hard to settle on a subject to paint and then spent a great deal of time working out the details of the composition through numerous studies. By the end of his life he averaged just two oils a year. Hopper died on May 15, 1967 and Jo Hopper died just 10 months later, bequeathing their artistic estate to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Hopper is buried, along with Jo, his sister and his parents, in Nyack's Oak Hill Cemetery.
The Legacy of Edward Hopper
Hopper has inspired countless painters, photographers, filmmakers, set designers, dancers, writers, and musicians and the term "Hopperesque" is now widely used to connote images reminiscent of Hopper's moods and subjects. In the visual arts, Hopper's influence has touched artists in a range of media including Mark Rothko, George Segal, Banksy, Ed Ruscha, and Tony Oursler. The painter Eric Fischl remarked, "You can tell how great an artist is by how long it takes you to get through his territory...I'm still in the territory that he opened up." Richard Diebenkorn recalled the importance of Hopper's influence on his work when he was a student stating, "I embraced Hopper completely ... It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere ... kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity ... It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine." In the exhibition and catalogue, Edward Hopper & Company: Hopper's Influence on Photography (2009), Jeffrey Fraenkel examines how Edward Hopper inspired a whole school of photographers including Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Stephen Shore. Fraenkel writes, "More than almost any American artist, Hopper has had a pervasive impact on the way we see the world--so pervasive as to be almost invisible."
Hopper has had no less of an impact on cinema. Generations of filmmakers have drawn inspiration from Hopper's dramatic viewpoints, lighting, and overall moods, among them, Sam Mendes, David Lynch, Robert Siodmak, Orson Welles, Wim Wenders, and Billy Wilder. His painting, House by the Railroad (1925) inspired Alfred Hitchcock's house in Psycho (1960) as well as that in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978).
Hopper's open-ended narratives have also appealed to writers and musicians. Tom Waits titled an album Nighthawks at the Diner and Madonna named a concert tour after the painting Girlie Show (1941). Joyce Carol Oates refers directly to Hopper in her poem, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks 1942. Many others have created whole collections of stories or poems using Hopper paintings as starting points. Hopper's Nighthawks has been appropriated and used hundreds of times in all forms of media within popular culture. An image of the painting or a facsimile of it can be found in an episode of the Simpsons, as the backdrop for a Peeps marshmallows ad, or featuring Marilyn Monroe and James Dean (in Gottfried Helnwein's Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1984)), morphed into a Starbucks, a space station, and in a variety of cartoons in The New Yorker.
The artist and writer Victor Burgin properly summed up Hopper's pervasive impact when he said, "We need not look for Hopper in order to find him. We may encounter him by chance at random places where his world intersects our own. We might ask whether or not this photograph by the American documentary photographer Larry Sultan was taken with Edward Hopper's paintings consciously in mind. But the question is irrelevant. To know Hopper's work is to be predisposed to see the world in his terms, consciously or not."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Edward Hopper
- Edward Hopper: A Catalogue RaisonneBy Gail Levin
- Edward HopperBy Carol Troyen and Judith Barter
- Edward Hopper: A Journal of His WorkBy Edward Hopper and Deborah Lyons
- Hopper Drawing (Whitney Museum of American Art)Our PickBy Carter E. Foster
- Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time - Second EditionBy Ortrud Westheider (Editor), Michael Philipp (Editor)
- Edward Hopper 1978 Whitney MuseumBy Lloyd Goodrich