Our Encounter with America- Through Edward Hopper
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Hoppper - Americana and Seeing Truth
An essay on "Expressing A Vision: Interpreting our World. Edward and Me."
By Brian Keeler
Our own Americana, those iconic nuggets of pure gold, the quintessence of our land and life is what is expressed in certain works of art. We call them memorable because they resonate with our lives as experienced and lived. There is a lot made of locale, geography and nationality in art appraisal when addressing any period of art, and rightly so, or is it?
In some ways, when nationalism is taken to an extreme we can see the negative effects, as today in “nativism” and even xenophobia and racism. The brouhaha around claiming the nationality of art may be overwrought in some cases. This is to say that the observer or the critic is making too much of context and social milieu and not allowing the art to stand on its own. After all, isn’t art supposed to connect us with each other and give us common cause? Of course art serves many purposes, sometimes even as propaganda, for good or ill. But then again, the best way to approach the universal or to cast a wide net, is through the authentic texture of the personal. We can see this in the confessional nature of certain popular songs ( I am thinking of many of Joni Mitchell's tunes), or verse and odes. Or perhaps, in the way humanism in the renaissance gave us honest records through individual portraits.
Edward Hopper is one of those painters that many of us have related to in this way, as with expressing the uniqueness of America in the 20th century. I recall discovering a large book of his work in a library in Wildwood, NJ when I was working in that seaside town in the early 70’s on the boardwalk as a portrait sketch artist. His work, in its unpicturesque, even banal portrayal showed us a way to see beauty in the commonplace.
Hopper has been on my mind as of late because of the current exhibit of his work at The Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, VA that showcases his pictorial themes of hotels. The exhibit made for a special focus on an this important part of his oeuvre - for he devoted a significant amount of paint and etching ink to exploring this theme. His art in this theme has even been referred to as voyeuristic as many works show views through windows, glimpses of late night office workers, and of course the now universally-known, Night Hawks, of the two diners in a restaurant. They say these works express a certain loneliness if not alienation or the sour grapes of a dysfunctional relationship. Hopper thought this was overstated. He famously stated, in rather deadpan denial of art critics reading too much into his art, “My aim in art has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impression of nature.”
The VMA show had some of his most accomplished works. And sitting in front of these originals allows again for renewed appreciation of just how wonderfully these paintings are composed and conceived. His draftsmanship is commendable always, as is the case with his perspective.
The exhibit had a rather novel display too, cooked up by the curators to show part of Hopper’s work in a rather novel manner. They recreated a hotel room with all the furnishings as if taken right out of one of Hopper’s western motel paintings. I passed by quickly during my visit, as it seemed interesting, but a little too gimmicky. I was more interested in the actual works. But a wonderful impression by NPR’s Susan Stamberg lit up my interest in the display. The main aspect that Stamberg highlighted was the fact that one could actually stay in the room for $150, and you could then entertain yourself as a character in one of the paintings, as if you were traveling the blue highways of America in 1948.
There was another exhibit of Hopper's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC several years back too. This show was more comprehensive. I thought it so wonderful that I visited on three separate occasions.
As a plein air painter and sometime participant in plein air festivals and competitions, the influence of Hopper can be ascribed to many of the artists working today. We are all involved in similar pursuits. Hopper after all was an out-of-doors painter too, looking from those common aspects of our towns and landscapes. The downside, perhaps is that it (portraying the less observed views) has become “a thing” in certain respects. But this approach is not really unique to America, as genre art, the art of everyday, has been around since antiquity. We can view the commonplace is frescos of Pompeii and more readily in the Dutch Golden Age with painters like Jan Steen.
My interest in Hopper, as of late, has also been notched up by the biography I am reading titled, “Edward Hopper, An Intimate Biography” by Gail Levin. The book was given to me over ten years ago, but it sat on shelf, as its heft was intimidating. It must be 3 inches thick and its 777 pages always looked like too big of an endeavor, which would require more effort than I wanted to invest.
I have been rewarded for embarking in this read, or as Hopper would say, in one of his painting titles; “An Excursion into Philosophy.” This biography is richly satisfying in many ways. Firstly, as most biographies do, it presents the context and firmament of the era. Most notably all the artists in that era- especially Robert Henri, one of Hopper's teachers and a charismatic leader. I have been a fan of Henri’s painting since art school, but also of his teaching and philosophy. So the new impressions of Henri brought out through this book offer refreshed insights into this leader of the Ashcan School, or "The Eight" as they were called. Many other artists of the era have cameo appearances including Guy Penni Dubois, Andrew Wyeth, John Sloan and of course his wife Jo, who comes across as resentful and irascible nag and under appreciated artist under the shadow of Hopper's genius. We do empathize and find sympathy if not compassion for their decades-long dysfunctional relationship that some how was supportive and beneficial too.
The book brings out the influence and importance of Hopper’s wife too, Jo Nivison, a painter in her own right, and also a student and model for Henri. She quipped, that on one day there were three paintings of her on view in New York City.
To view a short vid of the above painting being created click on this Youtube link- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4VMthovInQ&t=113s
Also brought in high relief are the struggles that Hopper endured and the fallow periods too, along with his disdain for doing commercial art. His need to fully feel a concept and have the pictorial idea identified with thoroughly, is of interest, as it shows the creative gestation of paintings.
The Maine connection is brought out nicely in this book of Levin’s. There were artists who preceded Hopper paint the seacoast and islands of Maine, like Homer, Henri, Bellows and Rockwell Kent to name a few, and many more after, including the Wyeth’s. The appeal of Maine in the early 20th century must have been even more alluring than it is today. Ogonquit, Portland, Pemaquid and other locales in Massachussets like Gloucester are still wonderful place to visit and paint. So, for us of artists of today, we can thank the Hoppers for trail blazing there.
In a way, this couple was the first modern peripatetic painter-couple, as when they purchased their first car it enabled them to seek out the motif more readily. We take this for granted today but in the early 20th century it was quite a new cultural phenomena.
So one can ask, “When does influence become oppressive?” And I suppose, each artist must answer this for themselves. I have heard there is a phenomena in art, and in writing too, that addresses this. It is called the “anxiety of influence.” It suggests the struggle of denying, or breaking through the protective shell of one’s teacher. Hopper is even part of this struggle and this is expressed by him when he said, “It took me ten years to brake free of art teachers influence." He supposedly said the same thing about the influence of his time in Paris. No one wants terribly to be merely derivative of someone else’s work. Yet the process of finding one’s voice often entails emulation. For example in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the author purposively tries on the literary tropes of several other writers. Hemmingway famously commented on this process when he said something to the effect of, “I got in the rink three times with Stendahl and finished with a draw each time.” Other famous examples include Petrarch battling with his hero Dante, and Petrarch triumphed, as many have by breaking the mold, rather than competing in the same game, which they knew they could not prevail. These examples suggest the struggles that some endure. Thomas Hart Benton and Hopper both had experiments with modernism and impressionism they experienced while in Paris, only to settle eventually on their expressions of America.
The Light, the compositional sophistication, the modeling and the evocative quality of these works all combine to bring us to the “suchness” or rarefied essence of America. His work with nudes, mostly his wife posing in interiors has our appreciation too. For us painters, we love the paint quality and verve with which Hopper’s brushy facility brings us into the process. He may seem a little heavy-handed at times, but we accept this. It turns out that Jo modeled for many of the works, like the woman in the Chop Suey restaurant, or the woman in the movie theatre interior.
The cross pollinating from movies, plays and literature is also part of the mix with Hopper and his times. This also has been brought out in recent years. The NGA exhibit of Hopper's work had a special room, that played old films showing the similarity between film and canvas. For example, Hitchcock’s Bates Hotel in his movie Psycho, with the American vernacular architecture, the mansard-roofed Victorian included, formed part of the milieu of the era. Hopper's reading material, including the lyrical poetry of Paul Verlaine, or Marcel Proust, Henry James and Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Isben, who are also part of the influence.
So it is with a sense of reverence that I reflect on Edward Hopper and his American Vision. His paintings have inspired many of us to look again at the common place, the quotidian and casual slants of light in rooms. To view these many beautiful Victorians, some with those wonderful second empire mansard roofs that form part of our landscapes, is to enjoy a common thread with our fellow Americans and hope these essential parts of our cultural heritage continue.