This post comes to us from Emily Sesko, Curatorial Intern
I remember being nine years old, packed into the car for a trip to Boston to see an exhibit of Edward Hopper paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts. My dad was excited, always in search of an opportunity to see a few good Hoppers. We’ve been all over the place in search of Hoppers, sometimes on purpose, other times finding ourselves on an impromptu Hopper-hunt. The hunt brought us to NBMAA a few years ago, around Christmas time. There was just one hanging upstairs in one of the galleries—Abbot’s House, from ca. 1926—and my dad was thrilled. A Hopper outpost, just twenty minutes away from home.
During his eighty-five-year lifetime, Hopper was not an especially prolific artist, producing fewer than 400 total works before his death. Nevertheless, he is one of America’s best-recognized painters, and was one of the bestselling artists at the height of his career between 1925 and 1945. What did it take to become one of America’s beloved realists?
Edward Hopper was born on July 22nd, 1882—this year would have been his 131st birthday—in Nyack, New York, to a comfortable middle-class family, his father a dry goods merchant. Hopper showed artistic promise from a young age and completed his studies at the New York Institute of Art and Design, where he admired the styles of French greats Manet and Degas. After graduating, Hopper began his career, not as a painter, but as an advertising illustrator for a firm in New York City. Hopper’s boredom with the life of a commercial artist led to a mild depression, and he began to resent his work. By the time he achieved enough economic stability to leave his job and paint full-time, Hopper despised illustration, although he did revisit some illustration techniques, like printmaking, at various points in his life.
During his time as an illustrator, Hopper took three trips to Europe in the early years of the 20th century. His time in Europe was centered mostly in Paris, and Hopper was inspired by his longtime love of 19th-century French artists to experiment with a lighter, more Impressionistic palette. However, he wouldn’t commit to this shift, and instead returned to his more comfortable palette of dark, moody tones that characterize many of his well-known works. Hopper saw his time overseas as a period of study, but he remained apparently unaffected by the currents in the modern art world, most notably, Cubism. While many artists at least toyed with Cubism, Hopper neglected the style entirely, and at one point even mentioned that he “didn’t remember having heard of Picasso at all” while he was working in Europe around the turn of the century. He was a largely solitary worker, never developing professional relationships with his contemporaries—perhaps accounting for his seeming ignorance of the trends in modern art.
It was during this early phase of his career that Hopper produced one of the two paintings we are fortunate to have in our permanent collection. Begun in 1916 and completed in 1919, Blackhead, Monhegan, is an oil painting typical of Hopper’s early works. In the 1910s and into the early 1920s, Hopper traveled occasionally around New England, notably in art colonies in Maine, like Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, where he painted outdoors and often used watercolors. He began to find a rhythm around 1920, when some themes emerged that would recur throughout his career, such as silence, loneliness, moody interiors, and scenes looking out of or into apartment windows. The quality of light and shadow in Hopper’s paintings has been likened to film noir, and a feeling of voyeurism is common in many of his scenes, particularly those of incommunicative couples and women alone in interiors.
The unsettled years of Hopper’s life ended in 1924 when he married Josephine ‘Jo’ Nivison, a fellow artist and one-time classmate at the New York Institute of Art and Design. Jo was Hopper’s polar opposite in most things, being open, loud, and very social where her husband was solitary, shy, and introspective. Not long after their marriage, Hopper painted the second work featured in the Museum’s collection, Abbot’s House, completed in 1926. Abbot’s House displays many of the stylistic features typical of Hopper’s trademark style, including a subdued, natural palette and dramatic interplay of light and shadow. Hopper noted more than once that one of his favorite techniques in painting architecture was to illuminate one side of a house with bright sunlight, leaving the other in shadow, evident in Abbot’s House. These sorts of townscapes might have pegged Hopper in the school of “American Scene” or Regionalist painters, but Hopper rejected such classifications, in keeping with his habit of working independently of other artists or major artistic movements. There is a distinct atmosphere of disconnectedness in the 1926 painting, as the house stands separate from any other buildings, and appears to be set at an odd angle. This separation was a common theme in Hopper’s work, and played a major role in forming a consistent personality in his works.
The 1930s and 1940s were Hopper’s most productive years. During the Great Depression, Hopper gained much more recognition in the art world with major purchases by the Whitney and MoMA, who paid thousands of dollars for his paintings. It was thanks to this financial success that the Hopper couple was able to purchase land on Cape Cod and build a summer home in 1934, after which point they split their time between there and an apartment in New York City. Around the same time, he entered the Whitney Annual for the first time, and participated every year from then on until his death. In the early thirties, he was given his first major retrospective, which took place at the Whitney. Hopper produced many of his most famous works during and immediately after the Depression, including Nighthawks (1942) and Morning in a City (1944). In the late 1940s, however, Hopper’s productivity dwindled somewhat, and he phased into a period of relative inactivity in the 1950s. Despite the spare number of paintings he completed, a few important pieces were done during this time, including Hotel by a Railroad (1952), which inspired the look of the Bates house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Hopper’s health faltered during the last twenty years of his life, and he found less and less time to paint as he passed his eightieth birthday. Nonetheless, he continued to paint when he could through the end of his life, including Intermission, done in 1963, which depicts a woman in what appears to be an empty theater. This iconic painting, one of Hopper’s largest and considered one of his more ambitious pieces, was recently acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
On May 15, 1967, Hopper died in his studio in New York City. His wife survived him for only ten months, although in the last months of her life she bequeathed the couple’s entire collection of over 3,000 works to the Whitney Museum. Today, Hopper’s 366 canvases are spread across collections around the country, including the two pieces housed here in New Britain, though the largest cache of Hopper’s works remains at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
Who’s your favorite artist? Would you ever set out on a quest to see everything you could by him or her? Comment and tell us what you think!