handprint : edward hopper
 
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) followed an independent and consistent artistic vision throughout his life, and became one of the great American realist painters and a master of landscape watercolors. Son of a Nyack (New York) dry goods merchant, Hopper learned illustration at a correspondence school, then enrolled from 1902-06 at the New York School of Art, where he studied painting under Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Hopper began work as an advertising illustrator at C.C. Phillips & Co. in New York in 1907, and voyaged to Europe three times (with emphasis on Paris) during 1906-10. Hopper exhibited at the Armory Show in 1913 and at the MacDowell Club from 1912-18, and held his first solo show in 1920. In 1924 he married the busty harridan (and plaid addict) Jo Nivison, who became his lifelong artistic companion, press agent and female figure model. Best known today for his stark oil paintings of cooly uncommunicative adults in scenes of urban anonymity, during his lifetime Hopper's landscape watercolors were actually more popular: a sold out show of watercolors at the Frank K. Rehn Gallery (New York) in October, 1924 enabled Hopper to quit commercial illustration to paint full time. Thereafter Hopper's life settled into a routine of work and summer painting excursions to New England, Arizona and Colorado, and consistently increasing critical and popular acclaim. He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1932, and from that year onwards appeared in nearly every Whitney Museum Biennial and Annual exhibition.
 
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Excluding a group of caricatures painted during his visit to Paris in 1906, roughly three fourths of Hopper's watercolors were painted in the decade 1923-32 when he was in his 40's; the rest were painted in the remaining three decades of his life. Nearly all these are landscape paintings of the deserts and towns around Santa Fe, New Mexico; street and rooftop views around Greenwich Village, New York (his home from 1913 to his death); and the coastal topography of Maine. Skyline Near Washington Square (1925, 38x55cm, in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum, Utica, NY) is characteristic of Hopper's New York paintings from the mid 1920's: subdued palette, crisp light profiling, strong value structure, and the brusk cropping of rooftop utility structures or urban skyline to create a static yet arrestingly designed image. Hopper takes the formal design practices of contemporaries such as Charles Demuth or Charles Sheeler as a point of departure, moving in the direction of a more physically literal point of view — paintings we can easily step into — and powerfully described external objects. Typical of all Hopper's watercolors is his subtly neglectful development of paint textures (blossoms, brushmarks, overlapping edges) through the apparently casual application of wet paint, as if signaling the artist's emotional distance or indifference to act of painting. Everything here, from the rooftop under our feet to the buildings along the horizon or the cirrus swirls in the sky, is rendered with the same dispassionate presence of paint.
 
By far the largest group of Hopper watercolors celebrates the New England landscape painted during his almost annual summer excursions to Maine. These often show lighthouses or isolated homes in town or countryside, starkly outlined against the flat planes of grassy knolls, flat ocean and clear sky. Portland Head Light (1927, 33x50cm) is a beautifully composed image painted "on a gorgeous blue day." At the center is a complex shape formed by contrasted and overlapping buildings, from the grand lightkeeper's house at right to the cluster of service sheds at left — a visual rhythm that continues into the jumble of boulders along the unseen beach. Charcoal has been used to emphasize the value contrasts that make the pattern so lively. These active, interlocking forms are set against the spare and beautifully shaded planes of field, sea and sky, the whole unified by a muted "Velázquez palette" that ranges from yellow ochre to ultramarine and cobalt blue across the burnt umber of the roofs and the delicate glimpse of green lawn. This reduced range of hues makes the modeling of values more impactful — especially in the torso of the magnificent light tower, chiseled with sun along its right side, and glowing with reflected light along its base. The beauty of Hopper's watercolors resembles in many respects the Greta paintings of John Sell Cotman, who also built paintings from a limited palette, strong value contrasts, and an architectural sense of pictorial design.
 
Hopper was an unusually intellectual and introspective artist, with a skepticism of critical commentary and disdain for Abstract Expressionist art. Instead, he turned his art to a reserved but penetrating look at the American character through its vernacular architecture. Many of Hopper's paintings depict well known buildings of New England towns in a manner that completely separates them from human activity (human figures almost never appear in Hopper's architectural watercolors). This has led some critics to interpret his elegantly composed portraits of houses and farms as commentaries on the unseen lives lived within them. But what seems to intrigue Hopper about Haskell's House (1924, 34x50cm) is the way this prominent Gloucester landmark has achieved a vitality and character all its own, detached from the menial routines of its occupants, grimly soldiering on against time, fashion and the harshly weathering sun and salt air. Charles Burchfield was an influence on Hopper, and this house shows a touch of Burchfield's surreal architectural animism, but the effect is used lightly to personify the character of a mercantile past overtaken by the culture of modern technology. Windows shuttered or shaded against the harsh light of day, fenced off from a street sprouting Hopper's trademark utility poles, this is a house as sturdy, self contained and inconvenient as an old ship — or a fading tradition — holding its own against the same bleaching sun that has warped the greener timbers of the modern age.

The standard reference on Hopper's paintings is Gail Levin's The Complete Watercolors of Edward Hopper (W.W. Norton, 2001), with a companion volume on the complete oil paintings. These are actually catalogues raisonnés, as Levin's commentary is limited to brief notes on the provenance and materials of each work, and there is no introductory essay on Hopper or his watercolor technique. A more insightful introduction with an excellent selection of paintings is available in the catalog to the National Museum of American Art's recent exhibition: Edward Hopper: The Watercolors (W.W. Norton, 1999) by Virginia Mecklenburg. An excellent overview of Hopper's life and works is the catalog to the Whitney Museum 1980 exhibition, Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist (W.W. Norton, 1985), also by Gail Levin.

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy