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Nighthawks, 1942. (The Art Institute of Chicago / Friends of American Art Collection / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Hopper: The Supreme American Realist of the 20th-Century

Mystery. Longing. A whole new way of seeing. A stunning retrospective reminds us why the enigmatic American artist retains his power

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Painting did not come easily to Edward Hopper. Each canvas represented a long, morose gestation spent in solitary thought. There were no sweeping brushstrokes from a fevered hand, no electrifying eurekas. He considered, discarded and pared down ideas for months before he squeezed even a drop of paint onto his palette. In the early 1960s, the artist Raphael Soyer visited Hopper and his wife, Josephine, in their summer house on a bluff above the sea in Cape Cod. Soyer found Hopper sitting in front gazing at the hills and Jo, as everyone called her, in back, staring in the opposite direction. "That's what we do," she said to Soyer. "He sits in his spot and looks at the hills all day, and I look at the ocean, and when we meet there's controversy, controversy, controversy." Expressed with Jo's characteristic flash (an artist herself and once an aspiring actress, she knew how to deliver a line), the vignette summarizes both Hopper's creative process and the couple's fractious yet enduring relationship. Similarly, Hopper's close friend, American painter and critic Guy Pène du Bois, once wrote that Hopper "told me...that it had taken him years to bring himself into the painting of a cloud in the sky."

"The painter," Edward Hopper often observed, "paints to reveal himself through what he sees in his subject." Chop Suey dates from 1929. (Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Hopper, in his 40s, in a 1925-30 self-portrait. (Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest /Photography by Robert E. Mates / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The watercolors Hopper created in Massachusetts in the 1920s led to his first professional recognition (House and Harbor, 1924). (Private Collection / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
In New York Corner, 1913, Hopper introduced a motif of red-brick buildings and a pattern of opened and closed windows. (Private Collection, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery and Martha Parrish & James Reinish, Inc. / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Hopper used his red-brick-rhythmic-window motif In Early Sunday Morning (1930) to create a sense of familiarity and eerie silence. (Whitney Museum of American Art / Photograph by Steven Sloman / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The intriguing Night Windows (1928) is at once voyeuristic and mysterious; one can only guess at what the woman is up to. (Museum of Modern Art, NY. Gift of John Hay Whitney / SCALA / Art Resource/ Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Hopper "offers slices of an insoluble life, moments in a narrative that can have no closure," wrote art critic Robert Hughes. Hopper painted Cape Cod Morning, which he said came nearer to what he felt than some other works, in 1950. (Smithsonian American Art Museum / Art Resource)
Nighthawks (1942) (The Art Institute of Chicago / Friends of American Art Collection / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Automat (1927) (Des Moines Art Center, Iowa / Michael Tropea, Chicago / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The Mansard Roof (1923) (The Brooklyn Museum, New York, Museum Collection Fund / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Captain Upton's House (1927) (Collection of Steve Martin / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Hills, South Truro (1930) (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection / Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Night Shadows (1921) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Gift of William Emerson)

For all his cautious deliberation, Hopper created more than 800 known paintings, watercolors and prints, as well as numerous drawings and illustrations. The best of them are uncanny distillations of New England towns and New York City architecture, with exact time and place arrested. His stark yet intimate interpretations of American life, sunk in shadow or broiling in the sun, are minimal dramas suffused with maximum power. Hopper had a remarkable ability to invest the most ordinary scene—whether at a roadside gas pump, a nondescript diner or a bleak hotel room—with intense mystery, creating narratives that no viewer can ever quite unravel. His frozen and isolated figures often seem awkwardly drawn and posed, but he eschewed making them appear too graceful or showy, which he felt would be false to the mood he sought to establish. Hopper's fidelity to his own vision, which lingered on the imperfections of human beings and their concerns, made his work a byword for honesty and emotional depth. Critic Clement Greenberg, the leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, saw the paradox. Hopper, he wrote in 1946, "is not a painter in the full sense; his means are second-hand, shabby, and impersonal." Yet Greenberg was discerning enough to add: "Hopper simply happens to be a bad painter. But if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist."

Hopper was as pensive as the people he put on canvas. Indeed, the enigmatic quality of the paintings was enhanced by the artist's public persona. Tall and solidly built with a massive balding head, he reminded observers of a piece of granite—and was about as forthcoming. He was unhelpful to journalists seeking details or anecdotes. "The whole answer is there on the canvas," he would stubbornly reply. But he also said, "The man's the work. Something doesn't come out of nothing." The art historian Lloyd Goodrich, who championed Hopper in the 1920s, thought that the artist and his work coalesced. "Hopper had no small talk," Goodrich wrote. "He was famous for his monumental silences; but like the spaces in his pictures, they were not empty. When he did speak, his words were the product of long meditation. About the things that interested him, especially art...he had perceptive things to say, expressed tersely but with weight and exactness, and uttered in a slow reluctant monotone."

As to controversy, there is little left anymore. Hopper's star has long blazed brightly. He is arguably the supreme American realist of the 20th century, encapsulating aspects of our experience so authentically that we can hardly see a tumbledown house near a deserted road or a shadow slipping across a brownstone facade except through his eyes. Given Hopper's iconic status, it is surprising to learn that no comprehensive survey of his work has been seen in American museums outside New York City in more than 25 years. This drought has been remedied by "Edward Hopper," a retrospective currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through August 19 and continuing on to Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art (Sept. 16, 2007-Jan. 21, 2008) and the Art Institute of Chicago (Feb. 16-May 11, 2008). Consisting of more than 100 paintings, watercolors and prints, most of them dating from roughly 1925 to 1950, the period of the artist's greatest achievement, the show spotlights Hopper's most compelling compositions.

"The emphasis is on connoisseurship, an old-fashioned term, but we selected rigorously," says Carol Troyen, a curator of American painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and one of the organizers—along with the Art Institute's Judith Barter and the National Gallery's Franklin Kelly—of the exhibition. "Hopper is recognized as a brilliant creator of images, but we also wanted to present him as an artist dedicated to the craft of painting whose work must be seen in person. His art is far more subtle than any reproduction reveals."

Edward Hopper was born July 22, 1882, in Nyack, New York, 25 miles north of New York City, into a family of English, Dutch, French and Welsh ancestry. His maternal grandfather built the house—preserved today as a landmark and community art center—where he and his sister, Marion, who was two years older, grew up. Hopper's father, Garrett Henry Hopper, was a dry goods merchant. His mother, Elizabeth Griffiths Smith Hopper, enjoyed drawing, and both his parents encouraged their son's artistic inclinations and preserved his early sketches of himself, his family and the local countryside. Gangling and self-effacing, Edward, who was over six feet tall at age 12, was teased by his classmates. His differentness probably reinforced solitary pursuits—he gravitated to the river, to sketching, to sailing and to painting. Even as a child, Hopper recalled, he noticed "that the light on the upper part of a house was different than that on the lower part. There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house."

Although Hopper's parents recognized their son's gifts and let him study art, they were prudent enough to require that he specialize in illustration as a way to make a living. After graduating from high school in 1899, Hopper enrolled in a commercial art school in New York City and stayed there about a year, after which he transferred to the New York School of Art, founded in 1896 by the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. Hopper continued to study illustration but also learned to paint from the most influential teachers of the day, including Chase, Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Both Chase and Henri had been influenced by Frans Hals, Velázquez and French Impressionism, particularly as exemplified by Édouard Manet. Henri encouraged his students to emancipate themselves from tired academic formulas, espousing a realism that plunged into the seamier aspects of American cities for its subject matter. As a successful artist looking back, Hopper had reservations about Henri as a painter, but he always granted that his teacher was a vigorous advocate for an enlightened way of seeing. Inspired by Henri's motivating force, the youthful Hopper stayed on at the school for six years, drawing from life and painting portraits and genre scenes. To support himself, he taught art there and also worked as a commercial artist. Hopper and his friend Rockwell Kent were both in Miller's class, and some of their early debates turned on painterly problems that remained of paramount fascination for Hopper. "I've always been intrigued by an empty room," he remembered. "When we were at school...[we] debated what a room looked like when there was nobody to see it, nobody looking in, even." In an empty room absence could suggest presence. This idea preoccupied Hopper for his entire life, from his 20s through his last years, as is evident in Rooms by the Sea and Sun in an Empty Room, two majestic pictures from the 1950s and '60s.

Another essential part of a budding artist's education was to go abroad. By saving money from his commercial assignments, Hopper was able to make three trips to Europe between 1906 and 1910. He lived primarily in Paris, and in letters home he rhapsodized about the beauty of the city and its citizens' appreciation of art.

Despite Hopper's enjoyment of the French capital, he registered little of the innovation or ferment that engaged other resident American artists. At the time of Hopper's first visit to Paris, the Fauves and the Expressionists had already made their debuts, and Picasso was moving toward Cubism. Hopper saw memorable retrospectives of Courbet, whom he admired, and Cézanne, about whom he complained. "Many Cézannes are very thin," he later told writer and artist Brian O'Doherty. "They don't have weight." In any case, Hopper's own Parisian pictures gave intimations of the painter he was to become. It was there that he put aside the portrait studies and dark palette of the Henri years to concentrate on architecture, depicting bridges and buildings glowing in the soft French light.

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