INTERVIEW: EDWARD HOPPER
A SENSE OF URBAN ALIENATION
One of America’s all-time great artists, Edward Hopper painted the rise of urban America, in which the individual seems totally out of place. He thereby had a particular interest for in-between spaces, such as hotels, offices and bars, places that are inhabited by people passing by.
We see her while passing by. She sits on the side of the bed that almost fills the room, within the corner a suitcase and some clothes.She is wearing nothing but an under gown, yet there is nothing erotic about the image. She is prudently reading a book held on her knees. As the title of Edward Hopper’s 1931 painting suggests, “Hotel Room” is not so much a portrait, but a still life that happens to feature a human figure. Due to the emphasis on the room’s rather cold and functional interior, the work breathes a sense of loneliness. As the scene is set in a hotel, we may safely assume that the lady reading her book is as much apasserby, as we are – we, the other hotelguests, walking through the hallway, throwing a quick glance inside.
Hopper often painted seemingly anonymous people in seemingly anonymous places, thus illustrating the rise of modern, urban America. His subjects never feature prominently, but are almost submerged within the settings of hotel lobbies and rooms, offices, theaters, restaurants
and, sometimes, private homes. Rather than portraits, Hopper paints landscapes, in which, despite his realism, the main themes are such all too human emotions as solitude, boredom and non-communication. Further strengthening this notion of Hopper as a modern landscape artist is the fact that he often said he was mainly interested in capturing light.
His most famous work “Night Hawks” (1942), for example, shows a bar tender and three clients in a brightly-lit diner late at night. In “Automat” (1927), a woman, on her own, is staring in her coffee in an empty fast food restaurant. In “Gas” (1940), we see a man at a gas station against the backdrop of a forest. It seems the last outpost of civilization before the wilderness starts. In “Room in New York” (1932), we see two people. The man is reading a newspaper, while she has one finger on the piano. Both look different ways, do separate things –an everyday scene in an everyday life, as they are utterly alone, together, in one and the same room.
Just how significant the setting is for Hopper is illustrated by the paintings’ titles, which nearly all refer to locations and never to the individual. The latter is but part of the whole and, more often than not, seems totally out of place. While Hopper’s images seem casual, in the sense that they seem snapshots of ordinary scenes in ordinary lives and ordinary places, they have been meticulously constructed. At times, it could take months before Hopper was satisfied with the exact position of his model – often his wife – and the tiniest details regarding the décor. For example, he made dozens of sketches of a theater before finally painting “New York Movie” (1939).
Hopper’s skeptic view on the rise of urban society is perhaps partly due to him growing up in the leafy, natural surroundings of upstate New York. Born in 1882 in a relatively well-off family in Nyack, a small town along the Hudson River, Hopper only moved to New York as an 18-year-old to study art and design. Being born in the countryside often produces a seed of nostalgia. In addition, he by and large lived a quiet life. He was a bit of a loner who did not need the company of others to be fulfilled. He certainly was not the socialite or party type. Nor did he hang out with other artists. Most of his adult life he lived with his wife and fellow artist, Josephine Nivison, in Greenwich Village.
It took quite a while before Hopper finally met with some recognition of his work. For years he struggled financially and, to survive in the Big Apple, was forced to do illustrations for, among other things, the movies and the American WWI propaganda effort. A major influence in his life was a former teacher who had encouraged him “to forget about art and do what he pleases” and “it isn’t the subject that counts but what you feel about it.” And that is just what Hopper seems to have done, as he never followed what was trendy or fashionable in art.
He was in his late 30s when his work finally began to make some waves. He won some awards and had three exhibitions, among which one in the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor to the Whitney Museum. Not a single painting was sold, yet it brought him recognition. A few years, however, during his second solo show, every single work was sold. Interestingly, the first ever oil painting the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) acquired was a Hopper. It also organized Hopper’s first retrospectives in 1933.
Ever since, Hopper was able to live more than comfortably of his art and became known as one of the all-time great American artists. In 1952, he was asked to represent his country at the Venice Biennale. He died in his studio on May 15, 1967. His wife followed 10 months later. Their joint collection of some 3000 artworks was donated to the Whitney Museum.
TEXT BY Peter Speetjens