Edward Hopper’s stillness

 

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967, American painter, print maker and water colourist

 

 

Considered one of the finest realist painters of his century,

 

widely thought to be the artist, par excellence, of the loneliness and alienation of modern urban life to whose changes

– skyscrapers, women’s independence, air travel –

he objected.   

 

But the artist denied that his work was concerned with human isolation or loneliness.

 

 

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Self-portrait, 1925-1930, oil on canvas

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

Often this artist’s oeuvre is described as a commentary on the individualism of (North) American life.

 

 

 

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Boy and moon, 1906–1907, pen, brush and ink and transparent and opaque watercolour on paper. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

Edward Hopper’s work has survived decades of the disdain of American modernizers of the artistic tradition only to survive and flourish in popular and critical estimations

especially now at this strange time of our enforced individual isolation.

 

 

 

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Soir Bleu, 1914, oil on canvas, and details below.

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967, American.  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art, NY 

 

Based on a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, the artist was attacked for dedicating this painting to France during the Great War.   He took it down and never showed it again in his lifetime.

 

 

 

A man repressed by his native Puritan upbringing, his senses were liberated by his three stays in Paris before the Great  War.

 

A close student of the Western artistic tradition,

 

 

 

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Sunday, 1926, oil on canvas. 

Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

 

 

 

an artist with a very slow work method, producing drawing after drawing, honing in on a moment’s perception and the techniques for its exposure,

 

until he was prepared to commit that moment to canvas.

 

 

 

 

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Railroad Sunset, 1929, oil on canvas

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

 

 

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Detail of A Woman in the Sun, 1961, oil on linen. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art 

The artist’s wife with whom he had an agreement to use only her as model for nudes.  Painted when the artist’s wife was 78, the artist transfigured her.

The colours represented here differ markedly from those on the website of the Whitney. 

But I remember these colours and not the museum’s.

 

 

 

 

A man who so crimped his talented wife and her art  in the living of their lives and in the making of his work, which she aided every step of his way

that the Whitney Museum gave away a significant portion of her work and rarely (at all?) displays what they kept.  This work was inherited by the Whitney in her will along with a vast bulk of her husband’s work. 

 

 

 

 

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Apartment Houses, East River, 1930, oil on canvas. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

While the artist’s background is interesting and – as with Soir Bleu – necessary to understand what was going on,

his work benefits, perhaps, from the advice about art appreciation to graduating students of the American artist, Frank Stella:

 

Get up real close; don’t be intimidated. Look.  What do you see?  What are you sensing? (paraphrase).

 

 

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Early Sunday Morning, 1930, oil on canvas.

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

I am not American-born and the colour of my skin is black.

 

I have no memory of and so no nostalgia for the way it was in the United States before and during Edward Hopper’s time. 

Nor any intellectual identification with it.  

 

 

And I have not understood how there can be a practice of  ‘individualism’ 

 

in a country in which there is such a disparity of wealth and opportunity and where thousands die prematurely for lack of basic health care. 

 

 

 

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Table for Ladies, 1930, oil on canvas. 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY 

The title alludes to an advertising moniker used to invite women to dine alone or with other women, a practice frowned upon in prior years.

 

 

 

 

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Cape Cod Sunset, 1934, oil on canvas.

  Whitney Museum of North American Art

 

 

 

 

I took Frank Stella’s advice.

What I see with Edward Hopper’s paintings is total focus on that point at which

 

an external reality

  – a word said to you, a city street in evening light, the intransigent facade of a building, the density and life green of conifers in summer, the hanging moon awaiting your confirmation of its immense presence- 

 

punctures the synapses of your brain,  shoots up the arteries, like an arrow, straight into the heart’s quiet chambers. 

 

 

 

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Cape Cod Evening, 1939, oil on canvas. 

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

 

 

 

Stillness. 

 

 

 

 

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Ground Swell, 1939, oil on canvas. 

Corcoran Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

 

 

 

There it steeps for a moment or a lifetime, macerating in the body’s enzymes, yielding, bit by bit, its nutrition.

 

Or it flutters for a few moments to be relegated to short-term memory and fractured, perhaps, into dreams of a night to come.

 

 

 

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New York Movie, 1939, oil on canvas.

  MOMA, NY

 

 

 

Your head inclines a little.

Your mind/body turns inward.  Quiet. 

 

 

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Gas, 1940, oil on canvas. 

MOMA, NY 

 

 

 

 

That moment may be an epiphany.  (The epiphany which radically alters behaviour).

 

 

 

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Summertime, 1943, oil on canvas. 

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington

 

 

 

 

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Seven A.M., 1948, oil on canvas. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art 

The artist’s wife described this desolate-looking store as a ‘blind pig’, a place where illicit activity went on.

 

 

 

 

More often it is a moment which, in a succession of such moments, answers the question of the poet, Mary Oliver:

 

 

 

 

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Cape Cod Morning, 1950, oil on canvas. 

Smithsonian Museum of American Art

 

 

 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life? 

(from the poem: Have You Ever Tried To Enter the Long Black Branches,

from the anthology: West Wind, Poems and Prose Poems,1997)

 

 

 

 

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New York Interior, 1921, oil on canvas. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art.

Notice there is neither thread nor needle visible.

 

The artist lived in Greenwich Village, NY for many years.  Such vignettes through open windows were not infrequent.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes, yes, because that practice of stillness

 

is necessary to conduct a life

A life ordinary as in Edward Hopper’s depictions.

 

where solitariness can be seen as essential for the interiority which is his singular focus.

 

Interiority: a coherent interior life to sustain us though the intermittent isolations of our fates from teenage angst to divorce and bereavement to pandemics and finally through the quiet which precedes an orderly death.

 

 

 

 

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Road and Trees, 1962, oil on canvas.

Philadelphia Art Museum. 

This is the museum’s only Hopper oil, received by gift in 2016. 

The late date points to how difficult a time the realist painters had from the rise of the Abstract Expressionists onwards to make themselves seen.

 

 

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Two Comedians, 1965, oil on canvas.

Private collection, photo from the web. 

The artist at 83 painting the farewells of his wife and himself. 

A rare painting of people in physical and emotional company with each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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