(b. 22 July 1882 in Nyack, New York; d. 15 May 1967 in New York City), premier realist artist of the twentieth century known for his haunting images of rural desolation and urban alienation; he strongly influenced the pop artists of the 1960s and represented the United States in the São Paulo Bienal exposition of 1967.
The second of two children born to Garret Henry Hopper, a dry goods store owner, and Elizabeth Griffiths Smith, a homemaker, Hopper grew up in a comfortably middle-class household and attended Nyack Baptist Church. After graduating from Nyack High School in 1899 he studied painting at the New York School of Art (1900–1906). Hopper visited Europe three times between 1906 and 1910 but studiously avoided the trappings of the avant-garde. He returned to New York in 1910, and in December 1913 he settled into a studio on the top floor of 3 Washington Square North in Greenwich Village, where he lived for the rest of his life. He worked as a freelance illustrator as he struggled for recognition as a painter. He sold his first painting, Sailing (1911), in the famous Armory Show of 1913, but did not sell another work for the next ten years. On 9 July 1924 Hopper married the painter Josephine ("Jo") Verstille Nivison; they had no children. In October of that year Hopper had a one-man show at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery, his first critical and financial success. Rehn remained as Hopper's dealer for the rest of his career.
House by the Railroad (1925), a desolate view of a Victorian house in a bare landscape, marked the crystallization of Hopper's mature style, and was the first painting acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A stark realism, architectural solidity, and the dramatic contrast of light and shadow combined to create a mood of loneliness, isolation, and deadening melancholy. So foreboding was the image of the dilapidated dwelling that it gave the film director Alfred Hitchcock the idea for the eerie house in Psycho (1960), a fact that delighted Hopper, an avid film fan whose compositions often owed much to the movies. Hopper's style remained consistent throughout his career as he pursued his unique perception of the American scene and produced some of the most enduring images in American art: the dreary facade of small shops on an empty street in Early Sunday Morning (1930); the noirish late-night diner of Nighthawks (1942); and the surreal doorway opening onto an expanse of sea and sky in Rooms by the Sea (1951).
Although Hopper's fame was partially eclipsed by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s, his reputation as the dean of American realists was firmly established by the 1960s. Some critics, however, still derided his style as outdated and merely "illustrative." Hopper in turn remained convinced that abstraction was a "temporary phase in art," and in 1960 he met with a group of like-minded artists to protest the growing influence of the abstractionists in American museums. At the age of seventy-eight Hopper, a tall and rangy man with an imposingly bald head, piercing blue eyes, and a well-weathered face, produced only one or two canvases a year.
In 1960 he completed People in the Sun, a mysterious depiction of a group of people in street clothes seated with faces raised to the sun as if trying to absorb its restorative powers, and Second Story Sunlight, in which two women—one young and voluptuous, the other aged—sit on the topfloor porch of a white house. Although such works lend themselves to psychological interpretations, the famously reticent Hopper discouraged such pursuits. "Maybe I am not very human," he once observed, but "what I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house." Both canvases evidence the preoccupation with the transfiguring power of sunlight that characterizes Hopper's later work. In some instances sunlight seems to have represented life itself to the aging Hopper. Sun in an Empty Room (1963), for example, is simply the stark play of sunlight on the bare walls of an empty room. When asked by his friend the writer Brian O'Doherty what he was after in this painting, Hopper replied, "I'm after me."
Invited to John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration, the curmudgeonly Hopper, a lifelong Republican, declined, but was pleased when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy chose a watercolor of his, Houses of Squam Light (1923), from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to exhibit in the White House in 1961. In December 1960 Hopper received Art in America's annual award for his contribution to American art and was praised for having brought "eloquence to silent desolation and a sunlit, poignant beauty to the commonplace." A Woman in the Sun (1961) exemplifies such poignancy: a haggard nude in a shabby room stands transfigured in the glare of morning sun from an unseen window. In 1962 Hopper completed New York Office and Road and Trees, which won the 1964 M. V. Khonstamn Prize for painting from the Art Institute of Chicago, and at year's end his complete graphic work was exhibited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In September 1964 the Whitney Museum of American Art honored Hopper with his third major retrospective, which opened to lavish critical praise and popular success. The exhibition refocused attention on Hopper, especially among a new generation of pop artists and photo-realists seeking to break away from abstractionism. They greatly admired Hopper's representational style and the incorporation of the commonplace into his art. Indeed, such advertising motifs as the Phillies cigar sign in Nighthawks and the Mobil logo in Gas (1940) anticipated the mass-market imagery of much of pop art, as epitomized by Andy Warhol's famous Campbell's soup cans.
Illness prevented Hopper from painting in 1964, but in 1965 he completed his final painting. Two Comedians depicts the artist and his wife as Pierrot-like clowns bowing together from the edge of a darkened stage. It is Hopper's strangely moving farewell. He died of a heart attack in his studio at the age of eighty-four and was buried in the family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery in Nyack. In September 1967 Hopper was chosen as the key figure to represent the United States in Brazil's São Paulo Bienal, along with younger artists including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and many pop artists.
Hopper is generally considered the greatest realist of the twentieth century. His haunting images are engrained in the American imagination, and "Hopperesque" is immediately suggestive of desolation and estrangement. His work provides a continuum from the ash can school of the 1920s to the pop art of the 1960s, and his choice as the key American artist in the São Paulo Bienal underscores his importance to the latter decade. Hopper's tradition of realism offered an alternative to the pop artists and photo-realist painters who adopted him as an ancestral figure and embraced both the commonplace of his subject matter—gas stations, diners, empty streets—as well as his use of imagery drawn from popular culture and advertising media. They also found Hopper's impassive and unsentimental vision of America appropriately "cool" for their era. Moreover, Hopper's essential themes of loneliness and alienation reverberated strongly not only with these younger artists but with the entire generation that came of age during the troubled 1960s.
More than 2,500 works by Hopper, and other visual and written archival material, were deposited as a bequest to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The oversized monograph by Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper (1976), is a lavishly illustrated classic study. See also Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist (1980), which contains color plates of all of Hopper's important works and a selected bibliography. The most comprehensive assessment of Hopper is Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonne (1994), a four-volume catalog of all of the artist's oils, watercolors, and illustrations that includes a complete exhibition history, biographical sketch, and exhaustive bibliography. The definitive biography is Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (1995); also useful is Justin Spring, The Essential Edward Hopper (1998). An intriguing profile of Hopper during the 1960s is in Brian O'Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (1973). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 May 1967).
A pioneer in picturing the 20th-century American scene, Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was a realist whose portrayal of his native country was uncompromising, yet filled with deep emotional content.
Edward Hopper was born on July 22, 1882, in Nyack, N.Y. At 17 he entered a New York school for illustrators; then from 1900 he studied for about 6 years at the New York School of Art, mostly under Robert Henri, whose emphasis on contemporary life strongly influenced him. Between 1906 and 1910 Hopper made three long visits to Europe, spent mostly in France but also including travel to other countries. In Paris he worked on his own, painting outdoor city scenes, and drawing Parisian types. After 1910 he never went abroad again.
Back home, from about 1908 Hopper began painting aspects of the native scene that few others attempted. In contrast to most former Henri students, he was interested less in the human element than in the physical features of the American city and country. But his pictures were too honest to be popular; they were rejected regularly by academic juries and failed to sell. Until he was over 40 he supported himself by commercial art and illustration, which he loathed; but he found time in summers to paint.
In 1915 Hopper took up etching, and in the 60-odd plates produced in the next 8 years, especially between 1919 and 1923, he first expressed in a mature style what he felt about the American scene. His prints presented everyday aspects of America with utter truthfulness, fresh direct vision, and an undertone of intense feeling. They were his first works to be admitted to the big exhibitions, to win prizes, and to attract attention from critics. With this recognition he began in the early 1920s to paint more and with a new assurance, at first in oil, then in watercolor. Thenceforth the two mediums were equally important in his work.
The 1920s brought great changes in Hopper's private life. In 1924 he married the painter Josephine Verstille Nivison, who had also studied under Henri. The couple spent winters in New York, on the top floor of an old house on Washington Square where Hopper had lived since 1913. He was now able to give up commercial work, and they could spend whole summers in New England, particularly on the seacoast. In 1930 they built a house in South Truro on Cape Cod, where they lived almost half the year thenceforth, with occasional long automobile trips, including several to the Far West and Mexico. Both of them preferred a life of the utmost simplicity and frugality, devoted to painting and country living.
Hopper's subject matter can be divided into three main categories: the city, the small town, and the country. His city scenes were concerned not with the busy life of streets and crowds, but with the city itself as a physical organism, a huge complex of steel, stone, concrete, and glass. When one or two women do appear, they seem to embody the loneliness of so many city dwellers. Often his city interiors at night are seen through windows, from the standpoint of an outside spectator. Light plays an essential role: sunlight and shadow on the city's massive structures, and the varied night lights—streetlamps, store windows, lighted interiors. This interplay of lights of differing colors and intensities turns familiar scenes into pictorial dramas.
Hopper's portrayal of the American small town showed a full awareness of what to others might seem its ugly aspects: the stark New England houses and churches, the pretentious flamboyance of late-19th-century mansions, the unpainted tenements of run-down sections. But there was no overt satire; rather, a deep emotional attachment to his native environment in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty. It was his world; he accepted it, and in a basically affirmative spirit, built his art out of it. It was this combination of love and revealing truth that gave his portrait of contemporary America its depth and intensity.
In his landscapes Hopper broke with the academic idyllicism that focused on unspoiled nature and ignored the works of man. Those prominent features of the American landscape, the railroad and the automobile highway, were essential elements in his works. He liked the relation between the forms of nature and of manmade things—the straight lines of railway tracks; the sharp angles of farm buildings; the clean, functional shapes of lighthouses. Instead of impressionist softness, he liked to picture the clear air, strong sunlight, and high cool skies of the Northeast. His landscapes have a crystalline clarity and often a poignant sense of solitude and stillness.
Hopper's art owed much to his command of design. His paintings were never merely naturalistic renderings but consciously composed works of art. His design had certain marked characteristics. It was built largely on straight lines; the overall structure was usually horizontal, but the horizontals were countered by strong verticals, creating his typical angularity. His style showed no softening with the years; indeed, his later oils were even more uncompromising in their rectilinear construction and reveal interesting parallels with geometric abstraction.
After his breakthrough in the 1920s, Hopper received many honors and awards, and increasing admiration from both traditionalists and the avant-garde. He died in his Washington Square studio on May 15, 1967.
Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper (1971), is a fully illustrated biographical and critical study. Saõ Paulo 9 (1967), the catalog of the Biennial Exhibition held in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, that featured Hopper, contains essays on him by William C. Seitz and Goodrich. □