“Self-portrait” (1930), oil on canvas, 63 x 50 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
«If we could express it in words, there would be no reason to paint it»
American art, that unknown art. Some people may remember Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, at least in terms of general knowledge, but with these characters, Art is really on the wane. The most important American artist of the 20th century is, instead, a sober man who is not particularly known to the general public. His name is Edward Hopper. He is an artist of rare sensitivity and cinematic style, so penetrating that he caught the eye of several great directors, who explicitly mentioned him in their parables on modernity, from Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” (1954) and “Psycho” (1960) to Darren Aronofsky in “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), and our Dario Argento in “Profondo Rosso” (“Deep Red”, 1975).
Edward Hopper was born on 22 July 1882 in Nyack, a village on the Hudson River in the woods surrounding New York. His parents were middle-class: his father, Garrett, owned a small textile shop, and his mother, Elizabeth, managed some family properties. Both were active in the local Baptist community and had many cultural interests. Edward was a tall, intelligent, solitary boy, fond of his sister Marion Louise, two years older. From a young age he showed a keen interest in literature and the visual arts, and in particular, talent for drawing at a very early age.
In 1900, he entered the prestigious New York School of Arts, where his teachers taught him a thorough knowledge of formal rules, a necessary condition for their re-interpretation. During this period, the American art scene lived off the timid light reflecting what was happening in Europe, anchoring itself to its strongholds, represented mainly by the great landscape painting of the Hudson River School and by the more recent realist currents of the Ashcan School. In 1906, after finishing his studies Hopper moved to Paris, where he lived for a few years. The liveliness of Ville Lumière and its splendid artistic and cultural heritage completed his training, which was further enriched by a number of short trips to the main European capital cities.
After returning home, he supported himself with a few commissions, mainly prints and illustrations. In 1913, his father died and Edward decided to move and live on his own in the Big Apple. From then on, his home-studio was an old and uncomfortable flat on Washington Square, where he led a routine and reserved life, interrupted only by summer holidays at the seaside on Cape Cod.
In 1923, by chance, he re-encountered a former college friend, Josephine Nivison, nicknamed “Jo”, a talented painter, whom he married a year later, despite they were opposites. The lively and extroverted woman would sacrifice her career for her husband, becoming his model, assistant and muse; despite a troubled relationship, the two would be married for the rest of their lives. After achieving success, Edward Hopper died on 15 May 1967. His wife died less than a year later.
“Soir Bleu” (1914), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 182.9 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
The artistic conception
Hopper has always loved drawing, ever since he was a child, and drew pictures of boats sailing up the Hudson Rivers. His sense of order, the importance of shape, proportion and rules stem from his bourgeois origin, emphasised by his strict religious upbringing. In short, he is not exactly the classic Bohemian artist, but he does not either lean on the simple repetition of styles in vogue to satisfy the public’s taste.
From the beginning, Hopper was interested in reality, consisting first and foremost of natural and urban structures, but also social and cultural ones. Such reality cannot ignore the people who inhabit it, as it is shown by the sketches of faces and bodies, sometimes caricatured, that he loved to make as a child. Hopper’s youthful realism was nurtured by his New York teachers, among them, the contribution made of his favourite teacher Robert Henri was key. It was in Paris, however, where Hopper discovered the Realism, with a capital R, of Courbet and Daumier, and their social themes, and Impressionism, whose masterly use of light and colour fascinated Hopper, although he was not so much impressed by Monet’s pure Realism or Renoir’s choral variant, but he was by the immature Realism of Manet and the intimate Realism of Degas.
Hopper did not seem particularly interested in the emerging avant-garde movements and when asked if he had ever met Picasso or Matisse in Paris, he would reply «I have not». In fact, in Europe he also absorbed some elements of the Secession and future Expressionism, especially as he admired the works of his Norwegian namesake Munch.
The painting that represents the embodiment of his training is “Soir Bleu” (1914), painted shortly after he returned to America. The piece not only summarises all his studies but already has a “cinematographic” framing and a certain introspection, which were to be distinctive features of his production. The painting captures the twilight of the luminous Parisian Belle Époque, with a number of characters from various social backgrounds, with vaguely disturbing features, who, although they are at meeting place, they do not actually communicate. A mysterious piece, with no clear interpretation, which unfortunately was not a success and remained confined to Hopper’s attic until he died.
“Hotel Room” (1931), oil on canvas, 152.4 x 166 cm, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museo Nacional, Madrid
The New World
At this point, Hopper dunks the lessons learned overseas in the American reality of his time. After Europe’s suicide in World War I, the United States was preparing to become the world’s dominant power in the “Roaring Twenties”. It was experiencing an unprecedented economic growth, accompanied by great social and cultural dynamism. Art Deco, Jazz and Charleston are the symbols of an optimistic and carefree period.
It is in this favourable scenario that mass society has its roots, identified, above all, with consumerism and technological innovations, with cars that invade the streets and electrical appliances that populate homes. Yet the frenzy, speed and noise of the crowds do not appear in Hopper’s work. His considerations go beyond that, they are about what is unseen, the flip side of the coin of “well-being”. Taking an almost dystopian approach, the artist reflects on the American identity, that is, on that civilisation which is always one step ahead of the rest of the world, for better or for worse. His America is not a cheerful “promised land”, but a cold and semi-deserted environment, representing the “existential” emptiness of an all in all young country, which has rapidly passed from wild nature to exasperated artifice. The consequent, inevitable uprooting generates a real alienation, in Freudian terms, such that man can no longer recognise himself as such.
Hopper often depicts the iconic places of emerging modernity, such as shops, pharmacies, petrol stations, offices, bars and hotels. One of his most representative paintings, “Hotel Room” (1931) is set in a small hotel room. It is a glimpse- almost a snapshot taken secretly- of an intimate situation, of something that could not be seen. The room is colourful but anonymous, illuminated by a cold, artificial light, which leaves the face of the girl, who is purposely depersonalised, in the shade. It is a moment of comfort that, in true fact, has very little to do with comfort. Fatigue, not only physical but “existential”, and, above all, loneliness can be perceived: no longer the painful loneliness of Romanticism, but the anguish of the cities. If the girl had a smartphone in her hand, our considerations would not change.
“Nighthawks” (1942), oil on canvas, 76.2 × 144 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Hopper does not stop at the real, but is “more real than the real”, that is, “hyperreal”. Although this word is used to indicate a specific form of art that developed in the last decades of the 20th century and aimed at reproducing reality in such a rigorous way as to appear photographic, its roots go much deeper than we think, even reaching the snubbed academic painting of the 19th century, for example, that of Bouguereau. Today as in the past, Hyperrealism questions what is actually “real”, trying to represent reality not through the dynamics of perception, but by seeking absolute precision in the details. Paradoxically, the result is something more ideal than real, but functional in extending the perceptive capacity, incorporating in the work theme elements that would not be expressible otherwise.
Hopper’s masterpiece, “Nighthawks” (1942), helps us to understand these concepts. Created after numerous preliminary drawings, the painting is so sharp and detailed that it goes beyond the natural night-time perception of a hypothetical observer. Introspection is enhanced exactly for this reason. The glass, for example, should be an element of transparency, of openness, but here, due to its extraordinary representation, it seems to enclose the characters, almost as if they were “in vitro” organisms to be tested, while increasing the feeling of silence and suffocation. A strong artificial light illuminates the “diner”, an informal place where people can eat until late at night, located on a deserted urban street, without any natural elements. Inside are a few motionless people, the “nighthawks” – people who are habitually active or wakeful at night – referred to in the title. They do not interact or communicate. It is a portrait of a society of small, fragile, lonely beings who have altered the normal rhythms of nature and who live their relationships, especially couples, in an increasingly artificial way.
In Hopper’s works, a complex and problematic modernity emerges, whose paradoxes are not so different from those investigated, in the same period, by science or artists such as Escher, but here they are treated from an essentially sociological perspective. To quote Goethe, a poet much loved by Hopper: «There is strong shadow where there is much light».
These images come from the book “Edward Hopper, Transformation of the Real” by Rolf G. Renner (TASCHEN GmbH, 2021).
These images are protected by copyright and are shown for illustrative purposes only, without any commercial purpose.