Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Edward Hopper was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. Both in his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings reflected his personal vision of modern American life.
Hopper was born in 1882 in Upper Nyack, New York, a yacht-building center on the Hudson River north of New York City. He was one of two children of a comfortably well-to-do family.
His parents, of mostly Dutch ancestry, were Elizabeth Griffiths Smith and Garret Henry Hopper, a dry-goods merchant. Although not so successful as his forebears, Garrett provided well for his two children with considerable help from his wife’s inheritance. He retired at age forty-nine. Edward and his only sister Marion attended both private and public schools. They were raised in a strict Baptist home. His father had a mild nature, and the household was dominated by women: Hopper’s mother, grandmother, sister, and maid.
Hopper was a good student in grade school and showed talent in drawing at age five. He readily absorbed his father’s intellectual tendencies and love of French and Russian cultures. He also demonstrated his mother’s artistic heritage. Hopper’s parents encouraged his art and kept him amply supplied with materials, instructional magazines, and illustrated books. By his teens, he was working in pen-and-ink, charcoal, watercolor, and oil—drawing from nature as well as making political cartoons. In 1895, he created his first signed oil painting, Rowboat in Rocky Cove. It shows his early interest in nautical subjects.
In his early self-portraits, Hopper tended to represent himself as skinny, ungraceful, and homely. Though a tall and quiet teenager, his prankish sense of humor found outlet in his art, sometimes in depictions of immigrants or of women dominating men in comic situations. Later in life, he mostly depicted women as the figures in his paintings. In high school, he dreamed of being a naval architect, but after graduation he declared his intention to follow an art career. Hopper’s parents insisted that he study commercial art to have a reliable means of income. In developing his self-image and individualistic philosophy of life, Hopper was influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Hopper began art studies with a correspondence course in 1899. Soon he transferred to the New York School of Art and Design, the forerunner of Parsons The New School for Design. There he studied for six years, with teachers including William Merritt Chase, who instructed him in oil painting. Early on, Hopper modeled his style after Chase and French Impressionist masters Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Sketching from live models proved a challenge and a shock for the conservatively raised Hopper.
Another of his teachers, artist Robert Henri, taught life class. Henri encouraged his students to use their art to “make a stir in the world”. He also advised his students, “It isn’t the subject that counts but what you feel about it” and “Forget about art and paint pictures of what interests you in life.” In this manner, Henri influenced Hopper, as well as notable future artists George Bellows and Rockwell Kent. He encouraged them to imbue a modern spirit in their work. Some artists in Henri’s circle, including John Sloan, became members of “The Eight”, also known as the Ashcan School of American Art. Hopper’s first existing oil painting to hint at his famous interiors was Solitary Figure in a Theater (c.1904). During his student years, he also painted dozens of nudes, still life studies, landscapes, and portraits, including his self-portraits.
In 1905, Hopper landed a part-time job with an advertising agency, where he created cover designs for trade magazines. Hopper came to detest illustration. He was bound to it by economic necessity until the mid-1920s. He temporarily escaped by making three trips to Europe, each centered in Paris, ostensibly to study the emerging art scene there. In fact, however, he studied alone and seemed mostly unaffected by the new currents in art. Later he said that he “didn’t remember having heard of Picasso at all.” He was highly impressed by Rembrandt, particularly his Night Watch, which he said was “the most wonderful thing of his I have seen; it’s past belief in its reality.”
Hopper began painting urban and architectural scenes in a dark palette. Then he shifted to the lighter palette of the Impressionists before returning to the darker palette with which he was comfortable. Hopper later said, “I got over that and later things done in Paris were more the kind of things I do now.” Hopper spent much of his time drawing street and café scenes, and going to the theater and opera. Unlike many of his contemporaries who imitated the abstract cubist experiments, Hopper was attracted to realist art. Later, he admitted to no European influences other than French engraver Charles Méryon, whose moody Paris scenes Hopper imitated.
After returning from his last European trip, Hopper rented a studio in New York City, where he struggled to define his own style. Reluctantly, he returned to illustration to support himself. Being a freelancer, Hopper was forced to solicit for projects, and had to knock on the doors of magazine and agency offices to find business. His painting languished: “it’s hard for me to decide what I want to paint. I go for months without finding it sometimes. It comes slowly.” His fellow illustrator, Walter Tittle, described Hopper’s depressed emotional state in sharper terms, seeing his friend “suffering…from long periods of unconquerable inertia, sitting for days at a time before his easel in helpless unhappiness, unable to raise a hand to break the spell.”
In 1912, Hopper traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to seek some inspiration and made his first outdoor paintings in America. He painted Squam Light, the first of many lighthouse paintings to come.
In 1913, at the famous Armory Show, Hopper earned $250 when he sold his first painting, Sailing (1911), which he had painted over an earlier self-portrait. Hopper was thirty-one, and although he hoped his first sale would lead to others in short order, his career would not catch on for many more years. He continued to participate in group exhibitions at smaller venues, such as the MacDowell Club of New York. Shortly after his father’s death that same year, Hopper moved to the 3 Washington Square North apartment in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, where he would live for the rest of his life.
The following year he received a commission to make some movie posters and handle publicity for a movie company. Although he did not like the illustration work, Hopper was a lifelong devotee of the cinema and the theatre, both of which he treated as subjects for his paintings. Each form influenced his compositional methods.
At an impasse over his oil paintings, in 1915 Hopper turned to etching. By 1923 he had produced most of his approximately 70 works in this medium, many of urban scenes of both Paris and New York. He also produced some posters for the war effort, as well as continuing with occasional commercial projects. When he could, Hopper did some outdoor watercolors on visits to New England, especially at the art colonies at Ogunquit, and Monhegan Island.
During the early 1920s his etchings began to receive public recognition. Although these were frustrating years, Hopper gained some recognition. In 1918, Hopper was awarded the U.S. Shipping Board Prize for his war poster, “Smash the Hun.” He participated in three exhibitions: in 1917 with the Society of Independent Artists, in January 1920 (a one-man exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club, which was the precursor to the Whitney Museum), and in 1922 (again with the Whitney Studio Club). In 1923, Hopper received two awards for his etchings: the Logan Prize from the Chicago Society of Etchers, and the W. A. Bryan Prize.
By 1923, Hopper’s slow climb finally produced a breakthrough. He re-encountered Josephine Nivison, an artist and former student of Robert Henri, during a summer painting trip in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They were opposites: she was short, open, gregarious, sociable, and liberal, while he was tall, secretive, shy, quiet, introspective, and conservative. They married a year later. She remarked famously, “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” She subordinated her career to his and shared his reclusive life style. The rest of their lives revolved around their spare walk-up apartment in the city and their summers in South Truro on Cape Cod. She managed his career and his interviews, was his primary model, and was his life companion.
With Nivison’s help, six of Hopper’s Gloucester watercolors were admitted to an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923. One of them, The Mansard Roof, was purchased by the museum for its permanent collection for the sum of $100. The critics generally raved about his work; one stated, “What vitality, force and directness! Observe what can be done with the homeliest subject.” Hopper sold all his watercolors at a one-man show the following year and finally decided to put illustration behind him.
The artist had demonstrated his ability to transfer his attraction to Parisian architecture to American urban and rural architecture. According to Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Carol Troyen, “Hopper really liked the way these houses, with their turrets and towers and porches and mansard roofs and ornament cast wonderful shadows. He always said that his favorite thing was painting sunlight on the side of a house.”
At forty-one, Hopper received further recognition for his work. He continued to harbor bitterness about his career, later turning down appearances and awards. With his financial stability secured by steady sales, Hopper would live a simple, stable life and continue creating art in his distinctive style for four more decades.
His Two on the Aisle (1927) sold for a personal record $1,500, enabling Hopper to purchase an automobile, which he used to make field trips to remote areas of New England. In 1929, he produced Chop Suey and Railroad Sunset. The following year, art patron Stephen Clark donated House by the Railroad (1925) to the Museum of Modern Art, the first oil painting that it acquired for its collection. Hopper painted his last self-portrait in oil around 1930. Although Josephine posed for many of his paintings, she sat for only one formal oil portrait by her husband, Jo Painting (1936).
Hopper fared better than many other artists during the Great Depression. His stature took a sharp rise in 1931 when major museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paid thousands of dollars for his works. He sold 30 paintings that year, including 13 watercolors. The following year he participated in the first Whitney Annual, and he continued to exhibit in every annual at the museum for the rest of his life. In 1933, the Museum of Modern Art gave Hopper his first large-scale retrospective.
In 1930, the Hoppers rented a cottage on Cape Cod in South Truro, Massachusetts. They returned to South Truro every summer for the rest of their lives, building a summer house there in 1934. From there, they would take driving trips into other areas when Edward needed to search for fresh material to paint. In the summers of 1937 and ’38, the Hoppers spent extended sojourns on Wagon Wheels Farm in South Royalton, Vermont, where Edward painted a series of watercolors along the White River. These scenes are atypical among Hopper’s mature works, as most are “pure” landscapes, devoid of architecture or human figures. First Branch of the White River (1938), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the most well-known of Hopper’s Vermont landscapes.
Hopper was very productive through the 1930s and early 1940s, producing among many important works New York Movie (1939), Girlie Show (1941), Nighthawks (1942), Hotel Lobby (1943), and Morning in a City (1944). During the late 1940s, however, he suffered a period of relative inactivity. He admitted, “I wish I could paint more. I get sick of reading and going to the movies.” During the next two decades, his health faltered, and he had several prostate surgeries and other medical problems. But, in the 1950s and early 1960s, he created several more major works, including First Row Orchestra (1951); as well as Morning Sun and Hotel by a Railroad, both in 1952; and Intermission in 1963.
Hopper died in his studio near Washington Square in New York City on May 15, 1967. He was buried two days later in the family’s grave at Oak Hill Cemetery in Nyack, New York, his place of birth. His wife died ten months later.
His wife bequeathed their joint collection of more than three thousand works to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Other significant paintings by Hopper are held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Des Moines Art Center, and the Art Institute of Chicago.