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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

After returning to the United States in 1910, Hopper never visited Europe again. He was set on finding his way as an American, and a transition toward a more individual style can be detected in New York Corner, painted in 1913. In that canvas, he introduces the motif of red-brick buildings and the rhythmic fugue of opened and closed windows that he would bring to a sensational pitch in the late 1920s with The City, From Williamsburg Bridge and Early Sunday Morning. But New York Corner is transitional; the weather is misty rather than sunny, and a throng uncharacteristically congregates in front of a stoop. When asked years later what he thought of a 1964 exhibition of artist Reginald Marsh's work, the master of pregnant, empty spaces replied, "He has more people in one picture than I have in all my paintings."

In December 1913, Hopper moved from Midtown to Greenwich Village, where he rented a high-ceilinged, top-floor apartment at 3 Washington Square North, a brick town house overlooking the storied square. The combined living and work space was heated by a potbellied stove, the bathroom was in the hall, and Hopper had to climb four flights of stairs to fetch coal for the stove or pick up the paper. But it suited him perfectly.

Hopper sold one painting in 1913 but didn't make another major sale for a decade. To support himself, he continued to illustrate business and trade journals, assignments he mostly detested. In 1915 he took up printmaking as a way to remain engaged as an artist. His etchings and drypoints found greater acceptance than his paintings; and at $10 to $20 each, they occasionally sold. Along with the bridges, buildings, trains and elevated railroads that already were familiar elements in his work, the prints feature a bold development: Hopper began portraying women as part of the passing scene and as the focus of male longing. The etching Night on the El Train is a snapshot of a pair of lovers oblivious to everyone else. In Evening Wind, a curvaceous nude climbs onto a bed on whose other side the artist seems to be sitting as he scratches a lovely chiaroscuro moment into a metal plate. In these etchings, New York is a nexus of romantic possibilities, overflowing with fantasies tantalizingly on the brink of fulfillment.

Between 1923 and 1928, Hopper often spent time during the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing village and art colony on Cape Ann. There he devoted himself to watercolor, a less cumbersome medium that allowed him to work outdoors, painting humble shacks as well as the grand mansions built by merchants and sea captains. The watercolors marked the beginning of Hopper's real professional recognition. He entered six of them in a show at the Brooklyn Museum in November 1923. The museum bought one, The Mansard Roof, a view of an 1873 house that showcases not only the structure's solidity, but the light, air and breeze playing over the building. A year later, Hopper sent a fresh batch of Gloucester watercolors to New York dealer Frank Rehn, whose Fifth Avenue gallery was devoted to prominent American painters. After Rehn mounted a Hopper watercolor show in October 1924 that was a critical and financial smash, the artist quit all commercial work and lived by his art for the rest of his life.

Hopper's career as a watercolorist had been jump-started by the encouragement of Josephine Verstille Nivison, an artist whom Hopper had first courted in 1923 in Gloucester. The two wed in July 1924. As both were over 40, with established living habits, adjusting to each other took some effort. Their marriage was close—Josephine moved into her husband's Washington Square quarters and did not have a separate work space for many years—and turbulent, for they were physical and temperamental opposites. Towering over her, he was stiff-necked and slow-moving; she was small, snappy and birdlike, quick to act and quicker to speak, which some said was constantly. Accounts of Jo Hopper's chattering are legion, but her vivacity and conversational ease must have charmed her future husband, at least initially, for these were traits he lacked. "Sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well," Jo quipped, "except that it doesn't thump when it hits bottom." As time passed, he tended to disregard her; she resented him. But Hopper probably could not have tolerated a more conventional wife. "Marriage is difficult," Jo told a friend. "But the thing has to be gone through." To which Hopper retorted, "Living with one woman is like living with two or three tigers." Jo kept her husband's art ledgers, guarded against too many guests, put up with his creative dry spells and put her own life on hold when he roused himself into working. She posed for nearly every female figure in his canvases, both for his convenience and her peace of mind. They formed a bond that only Edward's death, at age 84, in 1967 would break. Jo survived him by just ten months, dying 12 days before her 85th birthday.

Jo Hopper's availability as a model likely spurred her husband toward some of the more contemporary scenes of women and couples that became prominent in his oils of the mid- and late 1920s and gave several of them a Jazz Age edge. In Automat and Chop Suey, smartly clothed independent women, symbols of the flapper era, animate a heady cosmopolitan milieu. Chop Suey had an especially personal meaning for the Hoppers—the scene and the place derive from a Columbus Circle Chinese restaurant where they often ate during their courtship.

Hopper ignored much of the city's hurly-burly; he avoided its tourist attractions and landmarks, including the skyscraper, in favor of the homely chimney pots rising on the roofs of commonplace houses and industrial lofts. He painted a number of New York's bridges, though not the most famous, the Brooklyn Bridge. He reserved his greatest affection for unexceptional 19th- and early 20th-century structures. Echoing his Gloucester watercolors (and decades ahead of the historic preservation movement), he treasured vernacular buildings, drawing satisfaction from things that stayed as they were.

By the late 1920s, Hopper was in full command of a powerful urban vision. He had completed several extraordinary paintings that seemed almost carved out of the materials they were depicting, brick by brick and rivet by rivet. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) and Early Sunday Morning (1930) match the monumental scale of New York itself, whereas Night Windows (1928) acknowledges in an almost cinematic way the strange nonchalance that results from lives lived in such close proximity: even when you think you are alone, you are observed—and accept the fact. The unsettling nature of Night Windows derives from the position of the viewer—directly across from a half-dressed woman's derrière. The painting suggests that Hopper may have affected movies as much as they affected him. When German director Wim Wenders, a Hopper fan, was asked why the artist appeals to so many filmmakers, he said: "You can always tell where the camera is."

With the creation of such distinctive paintings, Hopper's reputation soared. Two on the Aisle sold in 1927 for $1,500, and Manhattan Bridge Loop brought $2,500 in 1928. That same year, Frank Rehn took in more than $8,000 for Hopper's oils and watercolors, which yielded the artist about $5,300 (more than $64,000 today). In January 1930, House by the Railroad became the first painting by any artist to enter the permanent collection of New York's newly established Museum of Modern Art. Later that year, the Whitney Museum of American Art bought Early Sunday Morning for $2,000; it would become a cornerstone of that new institution's permanent collection. The august Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Tables for Ladies for $4,500 in 1931, and in November 1933, the Museum of Modern Art gave Hopper a retrospective exhibition, an honor rarely bestowed on living American artists. He was 51.

Since 1930, the Hoppers had spent summer vacations in South Truro, Massachusetts, near the tip of Cape Cod. A small town situated between Wellfleet and Provincetown, Truro had kept its local character. In 1933 Jo received an inheritance, which the couple used to build a house there; it was completed the next year. The Hoppers would spend nearly every summer and early autumn in Truro for the remainder of their lives.

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