Museum  November 3, 2022  Howard Halle

Edward Hopper's Life and Work in New York City

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.426. © 2019 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930. Oil on canvas, 35 3/16 × 60 1/4 in. (89.4 × 153 cm).

New York City has often served as the canvas on which American dreams are painted, so it’s fitting that Edward Hopper (1882–1967), an acute observer of strangers lost in one reverie or the next, made Gotham his home and ongoing subject. This Whitney survey takes stock of Hopper’s life here, and the work issuing from it, revealing the many moments of preternatural stillness he picked out from the clamor of the city. 

Hopper’s New York was the historical hinge on which the United States swung from a rural backwater to an industrial superpower. Migrants from overseas intersected with those leaving the family farm to toil in factories and offices. For these new arrivals, New York became the open door to a country where being American was a matter of self-reinvention rather than origin. Great opportunities awaited along with great emotional costs, and Hopper’s genius lay in evoking how the metropolis mingled the two together.

Artwork © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Installation view of Edward Hopper's New York (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 19, 2022–March 5, 2023). Tables for Ladies, 1930.

Hopper was born in upstate Nyack along the Hudson River. He visited New York on family day trips as a kid and commuted there by ferry after graduating from high school to attend art classes. His teachers included William Merritt Chase, as well as Robert Henri, and one can even find traces of the former’s Impressionistic sensibility and the latter’s Ashcan School aesthetic in the young artist’s work. His studies coincided with those of fellow classmates George Bellows, Guy Pene du Bois, and Rockwell Kent, all of whom would come to shape American art during the interwar years.    

Hopper relocated permanently to New York in 1908, moving five years later to an apartment on Washington Square Park where he lived and worked until his death. He made a living as a successful commercial artist, creating covers for books and magazines, which are neatly displayed in a part of the show dedicated to his graphic designs and his considerable output of etchings. The remainder of the exhibit is likewise divided into sections focusing on Hopper’s themes and motifs.

© 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy Art Resource

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939. Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 × 40 1/8 in. (81.9 × 101.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art; given anonymously.

Dedicated to representation, Hopper’s style may seem like a throwback compared to other developments in twentieth century art. But whatever he painted—be it interiors, cityscapes, or figures—his compositional clarity made them palpable, while his use of light—sunshine during the day; street lamps, and illuminated windows at night—dissolved them into something oddly intangible.

Hopper’s New Yorkers appear preoccupied if not disengaged, alone even in a crowd. An early grisaille, Solitary Figure in a Theater (1902–04) depicts its protagonist as a silhouette among empty seats, registering like an abstract void. In Automat (1927), a young woman in a cloche hat and fur-trimmed coat sits by herself in a cafeteria at night, staring down at her cup of coffee. Behind and above her are ceiling fixtures reflected in the establishment’s plate glass storefront. Set in parallel rows, they lead out into the dark as runway lights pointed toward oblivion. New York Movie (1939) focuses on an usherette in a cinema, separated from the audience and the action on screen. Chin in hand with a distant expression on her face, she stands by herself in a dimly lit area by stairs leading to a balcony, a film noir character starring in her own solitude.

© 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy Art Resource, New York

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953. Oil on canvas, 28 × 40 in. (71.1 × 101.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art; George A. Hearn Fund.

Elsewhere, Hopper frequently employed windows as a framing device that allowed sunlight to slant into a room with the revelatory force of an Annunciation, or turn a scene lit from within into a nocturnal apparition.

In Office in a Small City (1953), a man seen from outside a stark concrete building sits at his desk in a corner formed by two huge rectangular windows, apparently stunned at the otherwise ordinary sight of a rooftop. There’s no denying the intrusive, even voyeuristic perspective that Hopper takes in such compositions or the fact that he brings along the viewer as his accomplice. This becomes explicitly clear in one instance where we peer into an apartment as a woman bends over with her backside towards us.

© 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 × 40 1/8 in. (71.4 × 101.9 cm). Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Museum Purchase, Howald Fund.

 

Hopper was an inveterate theatergoer, and his love of the footlights was manifested in paintings like Two on the Aisle (1927). But his biggest stage was the city itself, as seen in everything from the sublime Early Sunday Morning (1930) with its barber shop at daybreak, to the anxiety-provoking Approaching a City (1946) in which the mouth of an onrushing railroad tunnel threatens to swallow us whole.  

In Edward Hopper’s New York, people and places simultaneously exist within the here and now as well as in an indefinable state just beyond reach. Pace Modernism, Hopper was indeed a realist but one who ultimately portrayed a reality unmoored by modern life.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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