Past Masters: Edward Hopper, An American Classic

Early Sunday Morning

"Early Sunday Morning," 1930
oil on canvas, 35" x 60"
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


The following material is excerpted from American Painting: The Twentieth Century by Barbara Rose (distributed in the U.S. by The World Publishing Company, 1970):

Isolation per se is the dominant theme of Edward Hopper's work. But Hopper [1882-1967] is a sufficiently profound artist to have been able to generalize the sense of loneliness and alienation felt by many Americans into a universal theme. Unlike the magic realists, Regionalists and American Scene painters, Hopper did not attempt to revive the techniques of past epochs like the Renaissance or the Baroque; instead he set his mind to developing a severe laconic style compatible with his homely imagery and content. Like the magic realists, however, Hopper often casts a chill over his figures, frozen as if for eternity in their rigid fixed poses. . . . Hopper, unlike the majority of American realists of the thirties, would not compromise with the sentimental. His lonely office workers, aging couples and desolate filling stations speak of the depressing banality of the democratic experience; but they do so with a poignancy and compassion that elevate their subjects to dimensions far beyond their petty sufferings.

Gas

"Gas," 1940
oil on canvas, 26" x 40"
The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Hopper's painterly style, in which broad masses of light and shadow are juxtaposed to create a firmly constructed world of solid, massive shapes, distinguishes him as an outstanding American painter. His modest pictures, in renouncing any claim to the heroic, nonetheless create a very stable and permanent world. In Hopper's treatment of banality, there is . . . a real feeling for the ordinary working people who eat in cafeterias and all-night snack shops and live in furnished hotel rooms, whose life is brightened by no great moments or dramatic climaxes, a genuine empathy for those who find their few moments of comfort or amusement sunning themselves on simple porches or taking in a movie. Even an empty room for Hopper can be a theme pregnant with meaning. In Hopper's painting, the American Scene at last achieves dignity and relevance to the human condition in general.

Nighthawks

"Nighthawks," 1942
oil on canvas, 30" x 60"
The Art Institute of Chicago


Hopper was, like all the best American artists of the twentieth century, acutely aware of the standard set by French art, but he was also committed to making a statement about America. Surely his art owes a debt to Manet, although he far preferred Eakins' art to that of any Frenchman. As a young man, Hopper had made several trips to Europe, but he recalled that when he was in Paris in 1906, he for the first time had heard of Gertrude Stein, but not of Picasso. After painting a series of pointillist pictures, he gave up what he deemed to be a French style. By the time he exhibited Sailing, a solidly constructed painting of a yacht, however, in the Armory Show, he was a committed realist, devoted to the reconstruction of the natural world through formal intelligence. "The question of nationality in art is perhaps unsolvable," Hopper wrote in the introduction to the catalogue of his 1933 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Maintaining that "A nation's art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people," he called for an end of the domination of American art by French art, which he felt was like the subservient relationship of Roman art to Greek culture. "If an apprenticeship to a master has been necessary," he announced, "I think we have served it. Any further relation of such a character can only mean humiliation to us. After all, we are not French and never can be and any attempt to be so is to deny our inheritance and to try to impose upon ourselves a character that can be nothing but a veneer upon surface."

Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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