On the third Saturday of every month, several of us trek out to one of the many New York City venues to look at art. We’ve been to the Brooklyn Museum, the Met and MoMA on more than one occasion, we spent an afternoon at the Drawing Center, the Botanical Gardens and on and on. We’ve been looking at art together since before the pandemic and coming back to it in the last few months has been fun. Chasing art in New York is stimulating. There is always something to look at, to learn from and to inspire. Last Saturday, Lizzy, Stephanie, Reyna, Kerry and I all braved the cold to see Edward Hopper at the Whitney.
Hopper was born in Nyack, New York and began art studies through a correspondence course. He later transferred to the New York School of Art and Design, the forerunner of Parsons School of Design, where he studied for six years.
Hopper worked part-time at an advertising agency creating cover designs for trade magazines. By all accounts, he came to detest illustration, sticking to it out of economic necessity. To escape he traveled to Europe.
Hopper lived in and was inspired by New York City. He rented a studio in Washington Square North in Greenwich Village, theaters, rooftops and bridges are among his topics. One of his most recognizable pieces NIGHTHAWKS, is set in an iconic New York City setting, a diner.
Nighthawks (1942). Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas.
Melancholy and loneliness are central to many of Hopper’s painting. In NIGHTHAWKS, three people sit at the counter; the couple and a man are opposite a server, each lost in thought and disengaged from one another. The piece, an oil on canvas, was painted in 1942 and although inspired by a real restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, the painting is not a realistic transcription of an actual place. The streets in NIGHTHAWKS are markedly absent of people, the environment is stark and dim. Like many of Hoppers’s paintings, people are confined to a singular space, framed apart from the outside world. The diner’s interior is bright, the scale closes the occupants in and we are on the outside looking in. The piece hangs as part of the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago and sadly not included in the Whitney exhibit.
Isolation is a reoccurring theme in Hopper’s work. In ROOM IN NEW YORK a couple sit in a well lit sitting room. She absently plays with piano keys and he reads a newspaper. Neither looks at the other. Each of them could have been alone in the room. Her back faces him and he leans into his newspaper. Two people oblivious of each other’s presence.
Room in New York (1932). Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas.
Hopper's most systematic declaration of his philosophy as an artist was given in a handwritten note, titled "Statement", submitted in 1953 to the journal Reality:
“Great art, he said, “is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.
It is evident that people in Hopper’ work exist in an inner world. In MORNING SUN a woman in lingerie looks straight ahead, out onto an urban landscape. The bed is immaculately made, the walls are blank. The room is sterile. Absent of any sign or object that reveals anything about anyone. She may not even live there. Though she is in her nightclothes, the room is untouched even while she occupies it.
Morning Sun (1952). Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas.
At THE AUTOMAT a woman sits alone looking at nothing but the cup in front of her. The tables are again sterile and absent of any hint that anyone else had been there. There is not even an implicit presence. If anyone else is in that Automat, this woman is completely removed from them. She remains in hat and coat. Lost in thought, she appears to have no intention of getting comfortable nor stepping outside her inner world.
The Automat (1927). Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas.
Hopper paints streets with signs of no one. Urban spaces are haunting and abandoned. Our voyueristic eye can only look into windows. Subjects are never positioned in the composition to engage with you. The boundaries are set by contrasting lighting and architectural three sided boxes; a stage setting that stops short of you.
Fellow illustrator Walter Tittle described Hopper's depressed emotional state in sharper terms, seeing his friend "suffering...from long periods of unconquerable inertia, sitting for days at a time before his easel in helpless unhappiness, unable to raise a hand to break the spell.”
Hoppers isolation and solitude was not lost on any of us. Lizzy, Stephanie, Reyna, Kerry and I moved through the exhibit surrounded by people. These stories without words were deeply relatable and the melancholy of each piece evident, haunting and evocative. ●
This post is part of our Monthly Museum series. On the third Saturday of each month, Fountain House Studio invites its members on an excursion to visit one of the hundreds of art museums across New York City. Read about past trips here.
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