When Edward Hopper [wiki] set out to depict New York City on canvas, he didn't look to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. He didn't focus on Central Park or Times Square. Instead, he found his inspiration in the ordinary - an anonymous diner on an inconspicuous street in Greenwich Village. But that was Hopper. Unaffected by fantastic vistas, he sought out the mundane - be it in office buildings or shop windows - to highlight the extraordinary. Who knew an image of nighttime New Yorkers hunched over their coffee would capture the mood of the city better than any breathtaking skyline ever could? [Image Credit: Rétropesctive d'Edward Hopper]
Further inspiration came after Hopper's formal education was behind him. Like most young artists, he felt the draw of Europe, making several trips to Paris during his 20s. At the time, France was abuzz with movements like Fauvism and Cubism, but Hopper took an intense interest in the more old-fashioned Impressionism. Specifically, he was fascinated by their treatment of light, which left an indelible print on his life as an artist.
Hopper returned to the United States, but his artistic success was more than a little slow in coming. For years, he supported himself by illustrating for advertising agencies, a job he loathed. In fact, Hopper was known to walk around the block of the office several times before being able to force himself inside.
It wasn't until the mid-1920s, when Hopper was in his 40s, that he began to gain enough recognition to allow him to pursue art full time. So perhaps it's no coincidence that it was also around this time, in 1924, that Hopper married fellow artist Josephine Nivison. While Jo's diaries reveal their relationship to be complicated and contentious, the two were inseparable. They adopted an existence that was simple, bordering on sparse - but it was a lifestyle that surrounded Hopper with artistic inspiration. In the winter, the couple lived in a fourth-floor studio in Greenwich Village's Washington Square, while their summers were spent in a scantily furnished cottage on Cape Cod. Hopper's two major artistic subjects? The city and the seaside.
LONELY IS THE LIGHT
Hopper's other great subject was the city. And while his trademarks - the use of light and the sense of isolation - are still very much present in these pieces, they take on a different significance. For instance, windows play a major role in his city paintings, either by admitting or casting out light. Hopper's New York is a middle-class world of offices and hotel lobbies, so subjects are often looking out windows, or else the scene is glimpsed through them. The characters in Hopper's city paintings also exude loneliness; even when two or more people are together, they don't interact.
But perhaps the most intriguing element of Hopper's art is its interactive element. Hopper rejected storytelling in his work, so there is never a narrative. Consider "Office at Night" (1940). A man at a desk peers at a sheet of paper, while a woman stands before a file cabinet. What are they doing? Preparing for a meeting? Committing a crime? Is the scene innocent or sinister? There are no answers. But it's this sense of mystery that caused many observers to take away a disquieted feel from the urban paintings. It's also why film noir movies of the 1950s used Hopper-inspired settings and camera angles to convey an atmosphere of corruption.
Then there's Hopper's masterpiece, "Nighthawks" (1942), which contains all of his signature elements: the treatment of light, the feeling of loneliness, and the lack of narrative. The brightly lit diner (based on a real restaurant in Greenwich Village, which has since been destroyed) pours light onto the empty street. The four characters inside seem exposed and vulnerable, as though they're living in a fishbowl. One man hunches over his coffee with his back to the viewer, while a man and woman sit together, their hands touching but their eyes not meeting. The fresh-faced busboy in his white cap seems to be speaking, but the patrons pay no attention. The woman peers at an unidentifiable scrap of paper. Is it a ticket? Or folded money? Are the man and woman a couple? Are they tired from a night out, or contemplating a crime? It's tempting to make up a story about the scene, but Hopper gives us few clues.
STAYING ABOVE THE FRAY
When gauging his impact on the world, it can't really be said that Hopper strongly influenced his contemporaries. After all, he ignored most of the mid-century art movements, and in turn, their adherents ignored him. Yet, even though Hopper rejected the abstract art that surrounded him and stayed outside the modern mainstream, his work had a sense of geometry that abstract painters appreciated, though it remained uniquely individual to Hopper. In addition, founding an art movement means commenting on your work and giving it meaning - things Hopper was completely opposed to. Even the endless discussion of isolation in his work annoyed him. "The loneliness thing is overdone," he once said. Rather, Hopper always claimed his goals were purely artistic: "What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house."
The article above, written by Elizabeth Lunday, is reprinted with permission from mental_floss magazine (Nov - Dec 2006 issue).
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