These Sketches Will Take You Into the Artistic Mind of Edward Hopper | Travel | Smithsonian
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Office at Night, 1940, one of Edward Hopper’s many iconic and enigmatic paintings, is the centerpiece of the exhibition, “Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process,” now on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Hopper wouldn’t discuss the meaning of his works, but his many preparatory drawings allow us to look over his shoulder as he put chalk to paper, following his creative decisions step by step. (Edward Hopper, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Gift of the T.B. Walker Foundation, Gilbert M. Walker Fund)
In the first sketch for Office at Night, Hopper drew a straightforward rectangular space with the secretary standing next to the filing cabinet, a view that one might see from a desk elsewhere in the room. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
In the next chalk study, Hopper rotated the viewer’s position and raised the point of view, creating diagonals where the walls and floors meet. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
When Hopper introduced the boss at his desk, at first he showed him reading a sheet of paper that, apparently, the woman has handed to him from the filing cabinet—quite different from the final painting. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
As he moved to more finished sketches on finer paper, Hopper used white chalk to define the bright lights streaking across the room—a wide band across the back wall and a thinner one across the floor—intensifying the drama of the scene. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
Here, Hopper heightened the tension between the two figures by turning the man forward and making the woman’s pose more rigid; as he worked, Hopper also gradually tilted up the plane of the floor, so that the viewer seems to be looking down from an odd angle into the scene—as if from a passing elevated train. In the final painting, he would add a stray sheet of paper lying on the floor between the two figures, increasing the sense of an unresolved moment. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
Hotel Lobby, from 1942, depicts the same kind of mysterious frozen moment of a narrative as Office at Night. One wonders: What will happen next? Hopper’s imagination was sparked by the fleeting dramatic scenes that he happened upon, and it was through his many studies that he worked out how to convey his reaction to them. (Edward Hopper, Indianapolis Museum of Art; William Ray Adams Memorial Collection)
Here, in a page of sketches for Hotel Lobby, Hopper worked out details of the two women in the scene—the older woman at the left, the younger one at the right; they are on either side of the man, who seems subtly distracted. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
Hopper’s iconic Rooms for Tourists, 1945, was based on a rooming house in Provincetown on Cape Cod, where he and his wife Jo spent their summers. In his book American Visions, Robert Hughes wrote that “Hopper’s isolated Victorian houses, with their porches and pediments and staring windows, were recycled by a host of illustrators and filmmakers: the house the comically sinister Addams family lived in is a Hopper house, and so is the mansion alone on the Texas prairie in Giant, and the house in Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Edward Hopper, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903 )
To make the many sketches for Rooms for Tourists, Hopper parked his car so often near the Provincetown house that the people inside wondered what was going on. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
In this sketch of Rooms for Tourists, Hopper pulled together all the elements into the basic composition of the house as though seen in daylight. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
Approaching the final composition for Rooms for Tourists, Hopper cloaked the building in darkness. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )
A single figure is framed by a window in From Williamsburg Bridge, from 1928. There was something very modern about the way that Hopper was able to capture the sense of how city life threw people so close together even as their lives were completely separate. (Edward Hopper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; George A. Hearn Fund, 1937, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York )
In this study for From Williamsburg Bridge, Hopper concentrated on the effect of light as it raked across the building’s features, but he had not yet introduced the solitary figure in the window. (Edward Hopper, © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. )

These Sketches Will Take You Into the Artistic Mind of Edward Hopper

At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a new exhibition and a novella delve into the inexplicable sense of mystery in Hopper’s paintings

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Imagine a solitary man, an artist, who, for more than a half-century, observes the fleeting moments of life as he haunts the streets and movie houses of Greenwich Village or rides the elevated train throughout Manhattan, peering down into the windows of office buildings as he rumbles past. Life unfolds all around him, but he doesn’t linger on the story; he’s more interested in the depth of feeling that these moments evoke in him. This artist was Edward Hopper (1882-1967), a shy and secretive man who, with his wife Jo, lived in a spare walk-up apartment and adjoining studio near Washington Square, rarely traveling except for summers spent in New England. Along the way, Hopper produced such icons of American art as Nighthawks (1942), the definitive American painting of a late-night diner; Rooms for Tourists (1945), the mysterious Victorian house that has influenced several generations of noir filmmakers; and Office at Night (1940), which continues to intrigue us with its sense of drama frozen in time.

Office at Night is owned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where—in the words of education director Sarah Schultz—it’s “one of the museum’s crown jewels.” And right now, this enigmatic painting is getting a lot of attention. For one thing, it is the centerpiece of a major exhibition, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and now at the Walker. Entitled "Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process," the exhibition presents 22 of Hopper’s major oil paintings alongside the many chalk drawings that the artist made for each of them. 

But the Walker—always an adventurous museum—has gone one step further with Office at Night. As Schultz explains, she and Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Press, were brainstorming when they came up with the idea of asking two prominent writers, Laird Hunt and Kate Bernheimer, to collaborate on a novella inspired by Office at Night—in essence, Schultz says, “to take up residence in the painting, coming up with one of a thousand stories that could be told about it.”  The first installment of this novella has just now appeared on the museum’s website, and new ones will appear every weekday for the rest of the month. “It’s an experiment in narrative invention,” Schultz says.

And what a perfect choice Office at Night is for this experiment. Because, while it is true that Hopper is regarded as a realistic painter who started with what he called “facts,” his paintings are so much more than simply realistic. They seem to hold secrets, layers of meaning, hinted-at narratives floating beneath the surface. They make us want to know more, to finish the story. This is certainly true of Office at Night. A man sits at a desk and a woman—apparently his secretary—stands at a filing cabinet, in a sparse office bathed in light from outside the window. She looks at him, but he looks down at a sheet of paper, and both of their bodies are oddly rigid. On the floor between them is another sheet of paper; it seems to mean something—but what? We witness this scene from a raised viewpoint, as though we are voyeurs hovering just above and outside the room. “There is this sense of tension—this narrative tension—that either something has happened, or is about to happen,” Schultz says.

Hopper didn’t like to talk about the meaning of his paintings, but he did provide one interesting clue soon after the Walker acquired Office at Night in 1948. In a letter to the museum’s director, he wrote, “The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the ‘L’ train in New York after dark, and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind.”

Other clues about how Hopper created this unsettling sense of drama are provided by the preparatory chalk drawings in the show. By following these drawings from earliest to latest, we can watch over Hopper’s shoulder as, step by step, his imagination transforms the scene. He begins with a straightforward rectangular room, where the secretary stands, relaxed, next to the filing cabinet, and a large painting hangs on the wall. As the drawings progress, he gradually rotates the room, tilts the viewpoint, adjusts the light, experiments with the positions of the man and the woman to arrive at those frozen positions, and finally (in the finished work) removes the painting from the wall and adds the stray piece of paper on the floor between them. By the time we reach the finished painting, it’s as if we are watching a drama that refuses to unfold. As Schultz says: “There’s so much hanging in the air.”

All of the other paintings in the Hopper Drawing exhibit are given this same eye-opening analytic treatment, helping us understand why the artist’s “realistic” images have so much impact. At first glance, for example, Hotel Lobby (1943) looks pretty straightforward; but there is a subtle, yet palpable, sense of intensity among the three people in that lobby. Again, the many preparatory drawings show us that we’re not imagining it; every detail was submitted to the artist’s imagination to convey that reaction. Similarly, in the elevated view of sunlight-raked buildings in From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), the solitary figure in a window, which evokes a vague sense of loneliness, is a late addition to the composition. Or consider Rooms for Tourists, a Victorian house in Provincetown, where Hopper spent his summers. It’s just plain spooky. Hopper parked his car so often near that house, sketching every detail, that the people inside wondered what was going on; and then, in the final painting, he shrouded the house in darkness. As art critic Robert Hughes wrote in his book American Visions, “Hopper’s isolated Victorian houses, with their porches and pediments and staring windows, were recycled by a host of illustrators and filmmakers:  the house the comically sinister Addams family lived in is a Hopper house, and so is the mansion alone on the Texas prairie in Giant, and the house in Hitchcock’s Psycho.”

Yet, even with all these insights into Hopper’s creative process, we’ll never fully understand all the mysteries his paintings hold, which brings us back to the novella that has just been written for Office at Night. “What was very interesting for me is that both writers approached their process in the way that Hopper approached his process, which is starting with the facts of the painting and then improvising from there. You’ll see that when both Laird and Kate write, some of the elements that are missing in the painting, but that are in the drawings, actually have a role in the story.”

For example, Schultz reveals, the painting that hung on the wall in the preparatory drawings—but didn’t make it into the final painting—plays an important role in the story. Hmm…lost? Stolen? You’ll have to read the installments on the museum’s website to find out. But Schultz offers one last teaser. “The writers develop a backstory for the characters and the woman has this whole obsession with filing,” she says, and, after reading the novella, “I’ll never feel the same way about filing cabinets again!”  

"Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process" is on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through June 22, 2014. The exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, Hopper Drawing, published by Yale University Press. The novella inspired by Office at Night will eventually be published as an e-book by Coffee House Press.

About Constance Bond
Constance Bond

Freelance writer Constance Bond is the former art editor of Smithsonian Magazine.

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