Today is the birthday (1882) of Edward Hopper, a prominent US realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. Both in his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings are instantly recognizable.
Hopper was born in Upper Nyack, New York, a yacht-building center on the Hudson River north of New York City. He was one of two children of a comfortably well-off, middle-class family. His birthplace and boyhood home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, and is now the Edward Hopper House Art Center.
Hopper’s parents encouraged his art and kept him amply supplied with materials, instructional magazines, and illustrated books. By his teens, he was working in pen-and-ink, charcoal, watercolor, and oil—drawing from nature as well as making political cartoons. In 1895, he created his first signed oil painting, Rowboat in Rocky Cove. It shows his early interest in nautical subjects.
In high school, he considered being a naval architect, but after graduation he declared his intention to follow an art career. Hopper’s parents insisted that he study commercial art to have a reliable means of income. In developing his self-image and individualistic philosophy of life, Hopper was influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He later said, “I admire him greatly…I read him over and over again.”
Hopper began art studies with a correspondence course in 1899. Soon he transferred to the New York School of Art and Design, the forerunner of Parsons School for Design. There he studied for six years, with teachers including William Merritt Chase, who instructed him in oil painting. Early on, Hopper modeled his style after Chase and French masters Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Hopper’s first existing oil painting to hint at his famous interiors was Solitary Figure in a Theater (c.1904). During his student years, he also painted dozens of nudes, still life studies, landscapes, and portraits, including his self-portraits.
In 1905, Hopper landed a part-time job with an advertising agency, where he created cover designs for trade magazines. He came to detest illustration but was bound to it by economic necessity until the mid-1920s. During this time he made three trips to Europe, each centered in Paris, ostensibly to study the emerging art scene there. In fact, however, he studied alone and seemed mostly unaffected by the new currents in art. Later he said that he “didn’t remember having heard of Picasso at all.” He was highly impressed by Rembrandt, particularly his Night Watch, which he said was “the most wonderful thing of his I have seen; it’s past belief in its reality.”
Hopper began painting urban and architectural scenes in a dark palette. Then he shifted to the lighter palette of the Impressionists before returning to the darker palette with which he was comfortable. Hopper later said, “I got over that and later things done in Paris were more the kind of things I do now.” Hopper spent much of his time drawing street and café scenes, and going to the theater and opera. Unlike many of his contemporaries who imitated the abstract cubist experiments, Hopper was attracted to realist art. Later, he admitted to no European influences other than French engraver Charles Méryon, whose moody Paris scenes Hopper imitated.
After returning from his last European trip, Hopper rented a studio in New York City, where he struggled to define his own style. Reluctantly, he returned to illustration. Being a freelancer, Hopper was forced to solicit for projects, and had to knock on the doors of magazine and agency offices to find business. His painting languished: “it’s hard for me to decide what I want to paint. I go for months without finding it sometimes. It comes slowly.” His 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.”
In 1912, Hopper traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to seek some inspiration and did his first outdoor paintings in the US. He painted Squam Light, the first of many lighthouse paintings to come.
In 1913, at the famous Armory Show, Hopper earned $250 after he sold his first painting, Sailing (1911), which he painted over an earlier self-portrait. Hopper was 31, and although he hoped his first sale would lead to others in short order, his career would not catch on for many more years to come. He continued to participate in group exhibitions at smaller venues, such as MacDowell Club of New York. Shortly after his father’s death that same year, Hopper moved to the 3 Washington Square North apartment in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan where he would live for the rest of his life.
The following year he received a commission to make some movie posters and handle publicity for a movie company. Although he did not like the illustration work, Hopper was a lifelong devotee of the cinema and the theatre, both of which became subjects for his paintings and influenced his compositional methods.
At an impasse over his oil paintings, in 1915 Hopper turned to etching. By 1923 he had produced most of his approximately 70 works in this medium, many of urban scenes of both Paris and New York. He also produced some posters for the war effort, as well as continuing with occasional commercial projects. When he could, Hopper did some outdoor watercolors on visits to New England, especially at the art colonies at Ogunquit, Maine, and Monhegan Island.
During the early 1920s his etchings began to receive public recognition. They expressed some of his later themes, as in Night on the El Train (couples in silence), Evening Wind (solitary female), and The Catboat (simple nautical scene). Two notable oil paintings of this time were New York Interior (1921) and New York Restaurant (1922). He also painted two of his many “window” paintings to come: Girl at Sewing Machine and Moonlight Interior, both of which show a figure (clothed or nude) near a window of an apartment viewed as gazing out or from the outside looking in.
Although these were frustrating years, they did not go by completely without recognition. In 1918, Hopper was awarded the U.S. Shipping Board Prize for his war poster, “Smash the Hun,” and he was able to exhibit. In 1923, Hopper received two awards for his etchings: the Logan Prize from the Chicago Society of Etchers, and the W. A. Bryan Prize.
By 1923, Hopper’s slow climb finally produced a breakthrough. He re-encountered his future wife Josephine Nivison, an artist and former student of Robert Henri, during a summer painting trip in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They married a year later. She was gregarious and outgoing and he was shy and introverted. She remarked famously, “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” She subordinated her career to his and shared his reclusive life style. The rest of their lives revolved around their spare walk-up apartment in the city and their summers in South Truro on Cape Cod. She managed his career and his interviews, was his primary model, and his life companion.
With Nivison’s help, six of Hopper’s Gloucester watercolors were admitted to an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923. One of them, The Mansard Roof, was purchased by the museum for its permanent collection for the sum of $100. The critics generally raved about his work; one stated, “What vitality, force and directness! Observe what can be done with the homeliest subject.” Hopper sold all his watercolors at a one-man show the following year and finally decided to put illustration behind him.
At 41 Hopper received further recognition for his work although he continued to harbor bitterness about his career, turning down appearances and awards. His Two on the Aisle (1927) sold for a personal record $1,500, enabling Hopper to purchase an automobile, which he used to make field trips to remote areas of New England. In 1929, he produced Chop Suey and Railroad Sunset. The following year, art patron Stephen Clark donated House by the Railroad (1925) to the Museum of Modern Art, the first oil painting it acquired for its collection. Hopper painted his last self-portrait in oil around 1930. Although she posed for many of his paintings, Josephine modeled for only one formal oil portrait by her husband, Jo Painting (1936).
Hopper fared better than many other artists during the Great Depression. His stature took a sharp rise in 1931 when major museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paid thousands of dollars for his works. He sold 30 paintings that year, including 13 watercolors. The following year he participated in the first Whitney Annual, and he continued to exhibit in every annual at the museum for the rest of his life. In 1933, the Museum of Modern Art gave Hopper his first large-scale retrospective.
Hopper was very productive through the 1930s and early 1940s, producing among many important works New York Movie (1939), Girlie Show (1941), Nighthawks (1942), Hotel Lobby (1943), and Morning in a City (1944). During the late 1940s, however, he suffered a period of relative inactivity. He admitted, “I wish I could paint more. I get sick of reading and going to the movies.” In the two decades to come his health faltered, and he had several prostate surgeries and other medical problems. Nonetheless, in the 1950s and early 1960s, he created several more major works, including First Row Orchestra (1951); as well as Morning Sun and Hotel by a Railroad, both in 1952; and Intermission in 1963.
Hopper died in his studio near Washington Square in New York City on May 15, 1967. His wife, who died ten months later, bequeathed their joint collection of more than three thousand works to the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Here’s my usual gallery featuring mostly Hopper’s landscapes and urban images, the latter inevitably depicting the isolation and barrenness of life in the modern city.
Nighthawks, showing people in a diner in the wee hours, is justly famous. They are just drinking coffee, but the scene reminds me of early morning breakfasts in diners.
Flapjacks are classic diner breakfast food. Flapjacks in Britain are oatmeal bars, but in the US they are a version of pancakes. They are made to order in diners on the flat griddle and so are also called griddle cakes. At home you can make them in a large, cast-iron skillet. They are usually served in stacks with butter and maple syrup (maybe with some crisp bacon on the side).
2 cups all-purpose
4 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, melted
1 ½ cups milk
butter or oil for greasing
Heat your griddle or skillet over heat so that water flicked on it beads and dances immediately. Grease it lightly with butter or oil once it is hot.
Meanwhile sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl so that they are combined. Beat together the butter, milk, and eggs vigorously, making sure that the butter does not congeal in the process.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir to mix. Do not worry about making a smooth batter. Do this quickly and don’t worry about lumps. Just make sure there are no pockets of dry ingredients.
Use a small ladle to pour the batter on to the hot griddle, a few at a time. When the top surface begins to pop with bubbles, turn the flapjacks with a spatula. Both sides should be mottled golden and brown.
Serve in stacks with butter and maple syrup.