Art January 2023
On “Edward Hopper’s New York” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Edward Hopper (1882–1967) was the painter of small-town America. This we know. That his small town happened to be New York City, his home for nearly sixty years, we may not know. “Edward Hopper’s New York,” now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, tells the hometown story of an artist we thought we knew all along in a novel and illuminating way.1
It is certainly an achievement when an exhibition of a famous artist is able to surprise. When such an exhibition can also instruct and delight—and do so without resorting to the clichés of contemporary theory—this is a rare triumph. And when the subject is a dead white male painter—a conservative, anti–New Deal Republican, no less, who rejected every school and trend to look to the loneliness of the human condition—here is a show that must be seen to be believed. “Edward Hopper’s New York” is such an exhibition and will open many eyes to this artist’s elegiac vision.
Hopper treated New York as his own small town. Born just up the Hudson River in Nyack, he arrived in the big city as an art student at the turn of the twentieth century at a moment of dynamic change—and he wanted nothing to do with it. As the world looked ahead and up, he looked back and down to the remnants of what was left behind: the out-of-date storefronts and obsolete buildings and lost souls left to wander the urban stage. “Edward likes the surface of the earth,” observed his wife, Josephine (Jo) Nivison; “he likes to stay close to it.”
Hopper could be taciturn, difficult, a creature of habit.
Then, well into the second half of the twentieth century, despite his burgeoning national renown, Hopper lived like a nineteenth-century recluse on the top-floor walkup of the same cold-water row house at 3 Washington Square North where he had settled in 1913. “We’re not spectacular and we’re very private,” Jo said at the height of her husband’s fame, “and we don’t drink and we hardly ever smoke.” To which Edward added: “I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself.” Hopper could be taciturn, difficult, a creature of habit. “Sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well,” said Jo, “except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” Yet when times demanded, he and Jo pushed back, refusing to move or modernize when Robert Moses, New York University, and the urban planners came calling—“progress” be damned.
In his art, Hopper looked not to the familiar sights and sounds of the city but to the experiences of living in it—that longing for stability in a world in motion. As curated by Kim Conaty, the Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Whitney, with senior curatorial assistant Melinda Lang, “Edward Hopper’s New York” wanders much as the artist did in life. “The City in Print,” “Washington Square,” “The Horizontal City,” “The Window,” “Theater,” “Sketching New York,” and “Reality and Fantasy” are the thematic sections of this peripatetic exhibition that brings together some two hundred paintings, watercolors, prints, and drawings.
“Brings together” might be misleading, since a great majority of the exhibition comes out of the Whitney’s own extensive holdings by the artist. In 1968, after her husband’s death, Jo willed 2,500 of his works to the museum, supplementing the institution’s own acquisitions going back to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s purchase of Early Sunday Morning for her Studio Club in 1930, the same year Hopper painted the famous streetfront scene. And even these thousands have since been supplemented by another six hundred objects. Works by Hopper now total an astonishing 12 percent of the museum’s permanent collection. (It must also be said that the Whitney’s sweeping downtown views, of the former Meatpacking District and the recast High Line, now further echo the artist’s urban impressions.)
Edward Hopper’s New York” finds its pace even with so much from which to choose. The exhibition begins with a wall of early work by the commuting art student and illustrator. In this section called “First Impressions,” with several small drawings and paintings from the turn of the century arranged salon-style, we can already find elements of the Hopperesque rising out of his Ashcan beginnings (Robert Henri was his teacher).
Works such as Ferry Slip (ca. 1904–06), an oil on cardboard, and Tugboat with Black Smokestack (1908), an oil on canvas, speak less of their purported subject matter and more of the viewer observing them. Here we see Hopper’s own world as though glancing out the window of the ferry during his commute to town. These are snapshot views of the city—quick, uncomposed, and not altogether well lit. “Unmonumental” is one way to describe them. This is a New York not of tourists but of the workaday schlub.
Hopper was soon one of them. With his talents as a draftsman he found ready work in the trades. Several examples are here on display—illustrations for the Bulletin of the New York Edison Company (1906–07), Wells Fargo Messenger (1917–25), and Hotel Management (1917–25), articles on “What Makes Men Buy?” (1912) and “The Spur of Pay and Promotion” (1913), and ads for Bricklayer’s Coffee Break (1907–10), Scaffolding by Chesebro Whitman Co. Inc (ca. 1911–12), and Knothe Unseen Suspenders (ca. 1917–20).
These are lonely visions, largely unpeopled, vertiginous and isolated.
Hopper disliked it all, but the commercial assignments paid the bills even as his painting career went nowhere. At the same time his own work reflected his dejection and a sense of dislocation. Compositions such as Blackwell’s Island (1911) and The El Station (1908) find us glancing just far enough over the side of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge to see the moon reflecting in the East River, contrasting with the blackness of the city far below, and a long New York shadow obscuring the platform and tracks of the elevated train as we presumably rumble by. These are lonely visions, largely unpeopled, vertiginous and isolated. Solitary Figure in a Theater (ca. 1902–04), of the back of a head in silhouette, only reminds us that there’s another figure, solitary and out of view just a few rows back, observing this empty scene.
Hopper spent his time wandering the city for its nooks and crannies, collecting impressions of the forgotten buildings, bridges, and streetscapes that became his signature motifs. In the Teens, he hauled a printing press up to his studio and began making small etchings of these vignettes. They brought him some of his first attention as a fine artist. Night on the El Train (1918), Evening Wind (1921), and The Lonely House (1922) find the city at its most unguarded state. These impressions became the backlot sets in his
Hopper’s view of the city was out of time and place, much like his own artistic style. “In a period of groups, manifestos, and rampant aesthetic partisanship, Edward Hopper never declared a project,” notes Darby English in the exhibition catalogue. When Hopper traveled to Paris in the heady first decade of the century, he set himself against the nascent avant-garde. After seeing the Salon d’Automne of 1906, with works by Henri Matisse, he noted that it was “for the most part very bad.” He longed to return. Writing home to his mother, he said he found Paris a “very graceful and beautiful city, almost too formal and sweet to the taste after the raw disorder of New York.”
By the early 1920s, Hopper was in his forties, childless, unmarried, and an artist who had not sold a painting for ten years. Then in the summer of 1923 he crossed paths with Jo in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She was an artist herself who had also studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. A year later they married. Jo moved into Hopper’s seventy-four-step walkup, with its shared bathroom down the hall, its views of Washington Square, and its skylit studio. As the loquacious spouse gave voice to the couple, the red-haired Jo also became Hopper’s lifetime model. Study of Jo Hopper Reading (1925), Jo Painting (1936), Study of Jo Hopper Seated (ca. 1945–50), Morning in a City (1944), Morning Sun (1952)—for the empty stage of his cityscapes, Hopper now had his lead actress.
In the 1920s Hopper found a new audience as modern art returned to classicism and realism. For all this he never really diverged from painting in the nineteenth-century tradition of Thomas Eakins—an artist, he prided in noting (at least on belief), who once lived at 3 Washington Square North. Yet rather than the heroic doctors or strapping rowers Eakins depicted, Hopper’s figures were the fallen angels of the new century.
The New York theater was a regular destination for the Hoppers. They saved their many ticket stubs, now on display. For his own backdrops Hopper looked to the architecture of the city’s broken skyline, ignoring the modern highrises and instead focusing on the city’s aging tenements. He noted
our native architecture, with its hideous beauty, its fantastic roofs, pseudo-Gothic, French Mansard, Colonial . . . with eye-searing color or delicate harmonies of faded paint, shouldering one another along interminable streets. . . . There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city.
Hopper set his anonymous characters in these tableaux, increasingly looking to reflect an “Everytown usa,” even as he mined the specificities of the city. The raking light of New York became his spotlight, illuminating the stage for Morning in a City (1944), Sunlight in a Cafeteria (1958), and City Sunlight (1954). He used the city’s windows to frame these compositions, often with windows onto windows. The glimpses of Automat (1927), Tables for Ladies (1930), Room in New York (1932), and Office at Night (1940) open the curtains while also exposing our own voyeurism of the scenes. The awkwardness of each encounter might just about be exposed in the reflection of a storefront pane or the rattling window of the elevated train. Thus Hopper turned his viewer into his subject, just as he flipped the script for his many images of theater interiors, where the faceless spectators and distracted ushers become the actors.
Hopper’s windows not only opened up unexpected sight lines. Through their weathered frames they also exposed a city in the rearview mirror. Starting in 1946, the Hoppers fought desperately to preserve their own nineteenth-century walkup from the encroachment of a twentieth-century institution. “It is regrettable that in [our] taking over the building in which you reside it will be necessary for you to look for accommodations elsewhere,” New York University kindly wrote to the tenants of the building it sought to evict as the school saw its enrollment balloon after the war.
The Hoppers’ public fight during the last twenty years of their lives over the fate of their building and the park it overlooked became an inspiration for the city’s preservationist movement, which originated in their neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Hopper’s New York was “one that people with their restless need for change have overlooked: it is a part of its backwaters untouched by the swift current of the main tide,” observed his friend Guy Pène du Bois. “His realities are in the past of his youth.” Edward Hopper was not only the savior of a city gone by. He was also a preservationist of the souls who lived there.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 5, on page 53
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