Published  19/07/2004

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper

Tate Modern, London
27 May-5 September 2004

The paintings of Edward Hopper have come to represent a quintessentially American experience - highly charged emotionally - yet still and silent. So reproduced are Hopper's paintings that one experienced a reluctance to see the London retrospective, concerned perhaps that the familiarity with the works from reproduction might render the exhibition less compelling than on seeing the images for the first time. The sheer quality of Hopper's paintings in technical terms puts paid to any such doubts.

Superbly rendered buildings with perfect and subtle perspective, a masterly handling of the two dimensional space, subtle and beautiful use of tone, colour and light in finely crafted oil paintings makes the exhibition a powerful and moving experience. The scale of Hopper's paintings makes them approachable; the subjects drawn from everyday experience are comprehensible. They are neither regional nor kitsch; indeed they address universal concerns and are rightly considered to be icons of a modern America.

Hopper was born in Nyack, New York. His teacher at the New York School of Art, Robert Henri, encouraged him to make three extended trips to Paris between 1906 and 1910. There he painted the Parisian landscape in a plein-air style - a number of which are included in the present exhibition. On his return to New York, he painted American streetscapes and landscapes. In 1913, he moved to 3 Washington Square North, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Hopper was a relatively slow starter as an artist. The turning point in his career - at the age of 44 - was the sell-out exhibition of his watercolours in 1924. His subsequent acceptance by the art world was swift. The onset of the Depression in 1929, however, affected all artists, and Hopper was no exception. But Hopper had secured his reputation; in 1930, his painting, 'House by the Railroad' (1925), was bought by the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, in New York which precipitated a number of purchases throughout the 1930s by major museums - The Metropolitan Museum (1930), The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Brooklyn Museum, The Chicago Art Institute and the Fogg Art Museum, among others.

MoMA held an exhibition of Hopper's work in 1933. The founding director, Alfred Barr, viewed Hopper's work, 'as part of, a new international progressive trend emerging within modernism, represented by a balance between "form" and "content" in its work'.1

In the 1933 MoMA catalogue, concerning Hopper's Notes on Painting, he stated:

In general it can be said that a nation's art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people. French art seems to prove this … [But] we are not French and never can be, and any attempt to be so is to deny our inheritance.2

This tendency to categorise or define an American identity, in art subsided both in Hopper's own words and in those of various commentators. Some 20 years later, Hopper's attitude was less regional and more international or universal. Hopper has also been presented as an individual whose personal vision and 'the importance of truth' were paramount. As Hopper had stated in 1933:

My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature … I have tried to present my sensations in what is the most congenial and impressive form possible to me.3


Hopper greatly admired the 19th century philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings influenced his 1933, Notes on Painting. He continued to read Emerson's writings throughout his career. The painting 'Excursion into Reality' (1959), considered by Hopper to be possibly his best, is influenced by Emerson, who in turn revered Plato. A book of Plato is placed on the couch beside the sitting man and partly naked woman.

The reference to Plato and the implication that Hopper's alternative titles for the work made 'reality' and 'philosophy' interchangeable, and suggest that Plato's reconciliation of two poles - or indeed the two powers of imagination that Emerson described in his essay on Plato - find a sympathetic balance in the painting.4


Hopper's intellectual but individualistic approach enabled him to absorb aspects of artists whom he admired, including Rembrandt, Manet and Degas. The solitary demeanour of many of his characters has many precedents in the history of art. The nude is especially highly charged in Hopper's oeuvre, which the curator Sheena Wagstaff compares to those of Degas and Vuillard. Referring to Hopper's early work 'Summer Interior' (1909), painted after his second trip to Paris, she writes:

A vignette of erotic tension, it is a crowded framework of interlocked planar forms, abrupt diagonals and tilted floor where a woman is slumped on a tangle of sheets, her foot dipping into a rectangular pool of reflected light … The painting acknowledges the particular influence of Degas and Vuillard through which Hopper determined some of the basic elements of his formal vocabulary. This was refined in his later work by the gradual emptying out of interior spaces and the elimination of objects and other details that might play a counter role to the main 'narrative' of his paintings.5


In Degas - The Nudes (1988), Richard Thomson describes Degas' use of the nude:

Degas found a consistent interest, even satisfaction, in the notion of the nude not as some aesthetic ideal of unearthly purity, but as the bodily articulation of psychological intensity.6

Specific details, both technical and narrative, in a Hopper drama are not required. Actual events often do not exist at all, and many interpretations can be made.

A painting by Hopper presents a world over which the artist has almost total control, preconceived and ordered to create the illusion of reality. Hopper's desire was to reach a kind of plausibility, offering the minimum amount of information necessary to suggest to us that the scene in front of us is the kind of thing that could actually happen: a painterly manifestation of Goethe's 'reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me'.7


Emotional reality and narrative fiction are woven together in Hopper's compelling images of loneliness and isolation in everyday life. 'Office at Night' (1940), was painted after many preparatory sketches and drawings. For three weeks, his wife Jo wrote in her diary of the exacting, painstaking progress of the work. In 1986, the conceptual artist Victor Burgin made a photographic piece directly based in the painting, which he believed should be read in terms of sexuality and capitalism. Burgin, in turn, explores the themes of enclosed space, the law and authority. In an interview in 1962, Hopper stated:

I'm a realist and I react to natural phenomena. As a child I felt that the light on the upper part of a home was different than that on the lower part. There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house. You know, there are many thoughts, many impulses, that go into a picture - not just one. Light is an important expressive for me, but not too consciously so. I think it is a natural expression for me.8

Edward Hopper's sharp and perceptive eye addresses the everyday surroundings that formed the backdrop to his existence for several decades, incorporating their mise en scene within a chosen typology of interiors, exteriors and streetscape and landscape. The fall of the sunlight across such constructions of stripped down reality establishes a setting for a human activity held in suspension. This is also the provision of what is fundamentally an architectural vernacular and that is what makes its identity American East Coast. Paintings do not divulge noise, and yet we need no imagination to be able to incorporate bands of sound - the hiss of coffee percolators, the rattle of railroads mid-town, the rustle of wind across a veranda: it has to be American.

But a curious parallel exists with the Italian paintings of the 18th century Welsh landscape/typographical Painter, Thomas Jones (1742-1803), especially the Neapolitan works, 'A Wall in Naples' and 'House in Naples'. In Hopper's own words, the technology of the structures is occasionally at fault. The long glazed opening to the diner in 'Nighthawks' (1929) is simply, as a single strip of plate glass, not really feasible; even if it were, the fenestration bars are too slight to carry the long expanse of glass.

To find references to Hopper's work outside of America, one has had to look to film or to architecture. German Film-maker Wim Wenders, who admired Hopper's work, is a good example:

For Wenders' view, Hopper's own paintings could also be expanded into imaginary sequences as the viewer imagines a 'before' and 'after' to each still scene. Hopper's tableaux thus contain a temporal dimension which, in each viewer's mind, could be vitalised and set in motion.9

Hopper's painting, 'House by the Railroad' (1925) was cited by Alfred Hitchcock himself as the inspiration for the house of horror in 'Psycho' (1960). The manipulation of deadpan perspective inside/outside and absent vanishing points is a longstanding architectural treatment that was prevalent in pre-CAD times. Landscapes and trees invariably form a muted foil to the architectural platforms he created.

Hopper referred to the dichotomy that was fundamental to his work, that of positive and negative areas in the picture plane; 'It's hard to paint inside and outside at the same time.' Hopper's vision was utterly consistent from the early works to those completed shortly before his death, and much of the alienation and tension he managed to convey in minimal, realistic evocations of daily life, addresses the very duality of life. In his obituary of Hopper, Art Historian William Seitz summed up his career:

He held a position of esteem among American artists that was unique, for he was highly regarded by advocates of both representational and abstract painting, and by avant-gardists as well as conservatives.10

Peter Wollen concludes, 'Hopper's paintings invite us to speculate, to imagine our own screenplay, our own interpretation of past, present and future, our own reorganisation of time and space'.11


Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Wagstaff S. The Elation of Sunlight. In: Wagstaff S (ed). Edward Hopper. London: Tate Publishing, 2004: 14-15.
2. Quoted ibid, p.15.
3. Ibid, p.15.
4. Ibid, p.16.
5. Ibid, p.18.
6. Quoted by Wagstaff, ibid, p.20.
7. Ibid, p.21.
8. Ibid, p.225.
9. Wollen P. Two or Three Things I Know About Edward Hopper. In: Wagstaff S (ed). Edward Hopper.London: Tate Publishing, 2004: 78.
10. Seitz W. An Evaluation: Edward Hopper, Painter of the American Scene. In: The Lowell Sun, 28 May 1967, Massachusetts. Quoted by Wagstaff, ibid, p.28.
11. Wollen, op.cit. p.79.

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