Born on 22 July 1882, Edward Hopper grew up in the “mid-size, prosperous town” ((Gerry Souter. Edward Hopper (Best Of Collection) (Kindle Location 43). Kindle Edition.)) of Nyack, New York located on the Hudson River. Both parents inherited strong Baptist influence and ensured that he be raised in a “religion-centered community.” Values such as “frugality and the willingness to postpone gratification, not to mention emotional reticence and sexual inhibition” ((G. Levin, Edward Hopper an Intimate Biography, Rizzoli, 1995, New York, p. 12.)) were ingrained into Hopper from a young age. That said, he showed little interest in organized religion and remained a skeptic his entire life. Thanks to his mother’s inheritance, the family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, one that allowed and encouraged Hopper to develop his conspicuous artistic talent.
Originally lodged within the borders of traditional values, Hopper’s world would never be the same the moment he boarded one of modernity’s flagships: New York City. Thanks to his parents’ support –above all his mother’s– and already impressive portfolio of drawings, Hopper was accepted into the New York School of Art in 1900. The transition from rural culture to city culture was a significant one for Hopper and coincided with a similar one happening in the United States in general.
Just ten years before entering into Art school, a solitary superintendent noted the closing of the western “frontier,” ((See: Turner, Frederick Jackson (2011-03-17). The Frontier in American History (p. 1). Kindle Edition.)) symbolizing the end of the western colonization and the agricultural dominance. As such, “the decade of Hopper’s adolescence, the 1890s, was a ‘watershed’ in American history. Seen with hindsight, the ‘gay nineties’ mark the passage from strong moral principles of rural and small-town America into the beginning of urban and industrial development that eroded traditional ways of life and produced growing alienation. ((G. Levin, 12.))”
Thus we discover in several of his paintings, the stark contrast between the traditional styles and modernity’s intrusive novelties. Painted in 1952, Hopper’s House by the Railroad is “symbolic of the loss that is felt when modern progress leaves an agrarian society behind… the two themes of modern progress and historical continuity come together in the second man-made feature of the painting, a railroad track running so close to the house that a passing train would have rattled its windows.” ((Http://picturingamerica.neh.gov/downloads/pdfs/Resource_Guide_Chapters/PictAmer_Resource_Book_Chapter_16A.pdf))
The suns shines high and bright enough to cast a deep, penetrating shadow that diagonally severs the figure. It bears witness to the twilight of an era. Curiously, the house’s foundation is obstructed by the tracks, painted with earth-like colors, perhaps implying that a new foundation had been established. The painting was appraised as “the most poignant and desolating peace of realism we have ever seen.” ((Gerry Souter. (Kindle Locations 716-717). Kindle Edition.))
Hopper’s American Realism was “totally unique.” ((Gerry Souter. (Kindle Locations 873-876). Kindle Edition.)) Through his brush strokes flowed an intensely personal vision. His rather reclusive and anti-social personality together with his fascination for theater and films seemed to qualify him as an expert observer. Discovering a special window into the commonality of daily life and portraying them with a peculiarly powerful eloquence was his specialty. Emerson’s words could have easily been his own when he proclaimed: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic… I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me an insight into to-day, and you may have the Antique and future worlds.” ((G. Levin, 274.))
Yet, the observer’s role has its drawbacks. An acquaintance once noted, “There is a loneliness about him, a habitual moroseness, a sadness to the point of anger.” ((Gerry Souter. (Kindle Locations 1411-1414). Kindle Edition.)) Hopper’s fascination for the theater and movies reinforced his use of story-telling scenes in his paints, but it also revealed something about his own inner experience, and one of many Americans: loneliness. There in the theater houses, audience members “sat safely in the dark watching other people on the screen bare their souls, laugh, fight, make love, and experience tragedy.” ((Gerry Souter. (Kindle Locations 641). Kindle Edition.)) So too, Hooper preferred to remain on the outskirts and the interior conflicts that resulted came to life in his artwork.
Painted in 1942, Hopper’s most iconic painting, Nighthawks, depicts three customers and a waiter inhabiting the brightly light interior of a dinner a night. ((Apparently, there was a period when every college dormitory in the country had on its walls a poster of Hopper’s Nighthawks; it had become an icon. See Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces, DK Adult, 2001.)) “They appear lost in their own weariness and private concerns, their disconnections perhaps echoing the wartime anxiety felt by the nation as a whole.” ((http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hopp/hd_hopp.htm)) Still, the mood expressed transcends any precise date or location.
Here we see the flipside of the American Dream in the cities. Often known for its exhilarating velocity, its passion for advancement, and the multiplicity of sensations, the modern centers brought with them a plague of loneliness. Having abandoned the tranquil elegance of the countryside, multitudes of people found themselves out of place, conflicted interiorly over the bombardment of changes in the environment and in their ways of interacting.
Nighthawks “is not just an image of big-city loneliness, but of existential loneliness” ((Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces, DK Adult, 2001.)) and the questions that it incites have much to say to us even today. In the rush of change and progress, have we left our own identities behind? The city lights are supposed to be inviting, to offer us security and clarity of vision; but, for some reason, here they aren’t. The brightly illuminated interior seems to reveal too much. The couple’s hunched shoulders reveal a sensation a discomfort and vulnerability. Hopper doesn’t give any clue as to what is really going on in the scene. Still, the inner tension that fails to be communicated between the two could easily be a reflection of his own relationship with his wife Jo.
Taking another look at the Nighthawks painting, one realizes that there is no exit door. Indeed, in many of the paintings of Hopper, the figure seems confined within the crystal glass barrier. The glass offers a clear vision of the exterior, but instead of drawing the character out, it propels him deeper within his own interior.
As it is with his 1952 painting, Cape Cod Morning. “Painted in Truro in October 1950, a woman stands framed in a bay window peering intently at something beyond the frame. Light streams into the room across golden grass and touches the trees of the background forest. The bay’s architecture is impossible; the side facing the light is too narrow. It is more like the bow of a ship bursting from the clapboard wall of the house. The bay window is only a device to contain the woman’s anxiety.” ((Gerry Souter. (Kindle Locations 1290-1293). Kindle Edition.))
She gazes intensely towards the light: what does she see? What mysterious ray of hope does she discover in the beyond? Whatever she sees, she is unable to grasp it. Her look beyond quickly transforms into an introspective one, almost freezing her in her place, thwarting any hopes of piercing through her apprehensive subjectivity.
Hopper’s places before us windows into a reality that he perceived and experienced deeply. His work was an “expression of [his] inner life” ((Gerry Souter. (Kindle Locations 1322-1325). Kindle Edition.)) and with it he brought to life both his passion for the beauty of the open land and his frustration with the swelling barriers of materialism and vain superficiality. All too familiar with the experience, He “caught one phase of America, its loneliness…” ((G. Levin, 253.)) A loneliness that found no solace in faster trains or crowded megacities. For those of us looking back, he leaves clues that shed light on era not so different than our own.© 2014 – Garrett Johnson para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC