Life Studies: Edward Hopper’s drawings

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.

The hope of the artist is to resist interpre­tation. Emerson said that “to be great is to be misunderstood” and, pressed to explain his troubles, Hamlet cried to his inter­locutors, “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” Among contemporary artists, Jasper Johns has made a creed of reticence, and Edward Hopper was also famously tight-lipped. When the curator and critic Katharine Kuh interviewed Hopper about his motives for painting, he replied, “The whole answer is there on the canvas. I don’t know how I could explain it any further.”[1]

Nevertheless, for the last ninety years art his­torians have never stopped trying to crack the enigma that is Edward Hopper (Fig. 3). With both full-scale and focused exhibitions occurring nearly every other year in the United States and Europe, one might well conclude that the field of Hopper scholarship is fundamentally exhausted. However, a remarkable exhibition and catalogue and an independent publication have demon­strated that new facts and new interpretations are still forthcoming. Hopper Drawing, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, is the first major museum exhibition to delve into the artist’s drawings and their relation to his creative process in unparalleled depth. On view in New York until October 6, the exhibition will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art from November 17 to February 16, 2014, and the Walker Art Center in Minne­apolis from March 15 to June 22, 2014.

Brilliantly conceived and written about by Carter E. Foster, the Whitney’s Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawings, the show is a revelation in its analyses and elucidation of an enormous por­tion of Hopper’s oeuvre that the artist dismissed as unworthy of being seen.[2] Whether or not we agree with Hopper, the drawings are intimate records of the ways in which he observed people and places and then distilled ideas from those initial notations. “De­spite his generally negative statements about his drawings,” Foster writes, “he was fully at home in this technique, one he mastered before any other and practiced more thor­oughly than oil, watercolor, and etching combined.”[3] With more than twenty-five hundred drawings in the Whitney’s collection alone, Hopper’s “accomplishments as a draftsman,” Foster states, can be characterized “as the most significant constant over his long career, one that stretches across and thus ties together the nearly eight decades during which he made his extraordinary contributions to modern art.”[4]

Choosing from drawings owned by the Whitney, Foster has matched suites of preparatory studies to the unforgettable paintings that re­sulted from them, including Soir Bleu, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Early Sunday Morning, Nighthawks, Office at Night, New York Movie, Gas, Rooms for Tourists, Morning in a City, and Sun in an Empty Room. The works on paper and the oils often parallel Hopper’s own creative process, which always transcended literal transcription. He worked from life and from his imagination-from “the fact” and from “improvisation,” as he termed them-and if his initial drawings in a series chronicle the facts he observed, the later studies and paintings are syntheses of those facts sharpened by the alterations, eliminations, and inventions of memory and imagination. Very few of the paintings are exact copies of the drawings. As Foster observes, “Hopper’s drawings, especially his studies for major oils, are the material record linking the observed world and his subjective transformation of it.”[5]

Hopper’s first signed drawing dates to 1892, when he was around ten; he drew throughout his boyhood, during his time as an art student, and during the twenty-five years he spent as a profes­sional illustrator. The drawings from three trips to France and other parts of Europe between 1906 and 1910 reveal how he used drawing to absorb the world around him and then hone his visual observations in constructing a painting. As Foster shows, the germ of the dramatic Soir Bleu, painted in New York but clearly a French scene, is traceable to his Paris sketchbooks of 1906 and 1907. The sketchbooks are loaded with drawings and caricatures of social and occupational Parisian types that interested Hopper, including soldiers, sailors, policemen, priests, pimps, prostitutes (Figs. 2, 7), workers, and well-dressed men and women. Yet by the time the picture was painted in 1914, when Hopper was removed from the actual scene, the mild, sociable drawings have been converted by introspection and experience into a frieze of tense characters who shun any form of communi­cation with each other. Of particular interest are the self-containment of the off-duty clown and the cold cynicism of the prostitute figure, who stares beyond the frame of the picture toward the artist or spectator. Soir Bleu summarized Hopper’s im­pressions and memories of French art and culture. The artist never painted another picture like it, but, Foster notes, “it was an important picture on a personal level.”[6]

His conclusions dovetail with those reached in another illuminating volume, My Dear Mr. Hopper, a collection of newly discov­ered letters edited by Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, an independent scholar who has investigated the life and art of Josephine Nivison Hopper (1883-1968), the painter’s wife. Long before his marriage in 1924, Hopper was smitten with an aspiring art­ist named Alta Hilsdale (1884-1948). The two sustained an off-and-on romantic relationship from 1904 to 1914, which she ended by marrying some­one else. Hopper, devastated by the breakup, kept his history with Hilsdale hidden for the rest of his life. Hilsdale’s letters verify that the two of them were in New York and Paris at the same time, and they correct the misconception that Hopper’s time in the French capital was isolated and solitary. (Per­haps some of the drawings of unidentified young women in Hopper’s Paris sketchbooks are portraits of Hilsdale.) Over the years, Hopper continued to pursue her, and she made excuses to get rid of him. As Colleary writes in her introduction, “Hilsdale’s tone makes it clear that she had the upper hand; she frequently refused his overtures outright or sug­gested alternate plans”[7] that did not include him. But Hilsdale sometimes did respond to Hopper’s importuning, and Colleary links several of his Paris paintings and works on paper to favorite places they visited as a couple. Hopper received the news of Hilsdale’s marriage in October 1914. This was when he was working on Soir Bleu, which Col­leary notes, expresses his “bitter despondency.” The painting’s autobiographical context is plain, she writes. “Surely the source of the hardened emotions found in Soir Bleu must be Hopper’s own.”[8]

An important documentary breakthrough made during the process of organizing Hopper Drawing was the discovery of historical photographs (see Fig. 8) establishing the actual buildings depicted in Early Sunday Morning (Fig. 6). Hopper always said that the canvas was derived from an “almost literal translation of [storefronts on] Seventh Av­enue,”[9] and the photographs are evidence that a razed building at 88 Seventh Avenue was a direct inspiration for it. But Hopper also plucked mul­tiple elements from adjoining houses on the street, and his changes, which include removing shutters from the windows, employing more than one source of light, and eliminating a receding perspective, transform the banal architectural row into some­thing mysterious and eternal. If Hopper is a realist, he is only so in a deadpan way. He does not re-create events, and even with a composition as close to the original source as Early Sunday Morning, Hopper manipulates, combines, removes, com­presses, and reduces as ruthlessly as any abstract artist. There is always an interplay between the real and the imagined in Hopper’s work-and each painting he created is successful to the degree that it violates the former and is tempered by the latter.

Fig. 10. Study for Night¬hawks by Hopper, 1941 or 1942. Fabricated chalk on paper, 8 ½ by 10 ¾ inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.

As Hopper matured, empiricism grew ever more inflected by imaginative synthesis, as can be chart­ed in the nineteen extant studies that underlie the creation of Nighthawks, the artist’s iconic scene of a brightly lit eatery at night. With a starting point of several buildings, in­cluding a luncheonette, situ­ated on the wedged-shaped corners of Greenwich Avenue and West Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, Hopper drew small quick studies from life of such details as the coffee urns, the salt shakers, and men sitting at the counter. He also made five compositional studies, which evolve from a few diagonal lines and horizontal shapes into forms delineating the window, street, sidewalk, and the elongated and sharpened shape of the diner (Figs. 9, 10). With the structure of the composition resolved, Hopper proceeds to developing the figures and their relation­ship to each other, and the later drawings show him concentrating on poses, movements, and the fall of light on clothing and skin. But, as was Hopper’s practice, he merges and tinkers with the imagery in the drawings and makes many of the key refinements on canvas. In the painting, the counter top becomes a smooth vector connecting the char­acters, the couple’s gestures are made explicit, and the mood of unease at the heart of the painting is made palpable. Every superfluous detail has vanished: the huge plate-glass window is seamless, and there is no visible entrance to the place. Like characters in a noir film or existential novel, the figures seemed trapped in a world that offers no escape.

Even when Hopper was blocked, drawings functioned as the default activity that moved him along creatively. He had been a movie- and theater-lover all his life, and had painted and drawn inte­riors of theaters on numerous occasions, but the composing of New York Movie, his most uncanny realization of a theater’s dimly lit atmo­sphere and the experience of moviegoing, was long and difficult. He required more than fifty prepara­tory studies to find his way toward a masterwork. Foster divides the drawings for New York Movie into four groups: sketchbooks that contain details of several New York theaters; ten studies devoted to the seats, fixtures, and architecture of the Palace Theatre at 1564 Broadway; compositional studies in which Hopper worked out proportions and variations in perspective and view; and figural drawings of the usherette, for which Josephine Hopper posed in the hall outside their apartment. The first two categories of drawings were done from life and the second two were chiefly synthe­sized in the studio and in Hopper’s imagination. The drawings from inside the Palace Theatre convey the scene and even the color notes the artist was contemplating, but the usherette is absent and the doorway, hall, and stairway are separate entities. These drawings will coalesce with the inclusion of the standing female figure, who started out resembling Jo Hopper but metamorphosed into someone younger, slimmer, and more glamorous. The finished painting reveals that no matter how powerful the drawings of the theatre’s interior are-and the forms are strong and authoritative-their impact is mooted without the image of the woman stand­ing to the right.

The lurid color of New York Movie conjures up the dream world that the movies purvey, and Hopper was uncharacteristically indul­gent with the plushy decor that might normally be the object of his contempt. The painting is also an exception to his preference for the horizontal format of Soir Bleu, Early Sunday Morning, and Nighthawks. The composition is divided verti­cally by the ornate pillar, and upright forms-the curtains, exits, the pillar, and the figure of the woman-are dominant. Hopper also intro­duces several different sources of ambient light: the warm red light of the sconces, the pink of the overhead lights, and the silvery glow of the movie screen. We see that the usherette, herself a beacon of golden light, has the luxury of re­treating into her own thoughts, just as the viewers have escaped into the spectacle on the shimmering screen. But unlike the happy, neatly wrapped-up endings in Hollywood mov­ies, Hopper, wrote the critic Robert Hughes, “offers slices of an insoluble life, moments in a narrative that can have no closure.”[10] In Hopper, spaces are silent and even close encounters are distant, and perhaps the richness of the unsaid and the unknown is the answer he left for us to discern on canvas. Thanks to Foster’s eloquent investigations, that answer may also be found in ink, chalk, charcoal, and thousands of sheets of paper.

AVIS BERMAN is the author of Edward Hopper’s New York (Pomegranate, 2005), which was re­cently reissued in a French edition in conjunction with the exhibition Edward Hopper, organized by the Grand Palais in Paris in 2012.

[1] Katharine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Sev­enteen Modern Artists (1962; Da Capo Press, New York, 2000), p. 142. [2] Carter E. Foster, “Hopper’s Drawings,” in Carter E. Foster et al., Hopper Draw­ing (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2013), p. 19. [3] Ibid., p. 58. [4] Ibid. [5] Quoted in Adam D. Weinberg, “Foreword,” ibid., p. 7. [6] Fos­ter, “Hopper in Paris and Soir Bleu,” ibid., p. 66. [7] My Dear Mr. Hopper, ed. Elizabeth Thompson Colleary (Yale University Press, New Haven, in as­sociation with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013), p. 5. [8] Ibid., pp. 16-17. [9] Kuh, The Art­ist’s Voice, p. 131. [10] Robert Hughes, American Vi­sions: The Epic History of Art in America (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997), p. 427.