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28 January 2023

Edward Hopper’s city of still lives

How the painter stripped New York of its disorder to reveal its inhabitants’ solitude.

By Nick Burns

It is hard to imagine a more distinctively American reaction to Paris than that of the painter Edward Hopper when he arrived for the first time in autumn 1906. “Paris is a very graceful and beautiful city, almost too formal and sweet to the taste, after the raw disorder of New York,” Hopper wrote to his mother, in a letter now on display at the exhibition “Edward Hopper’s New York” in the city’s Whitney Museum.

Paris was startlingly clean, its transportation reliable and precise, the climate milder than New York’s “biting cold”. But its people were “small and have poor physiques” – here there were none of the wide shoulders and “well-cut features” one found on Broadway – and the sky lacked the deep blue purity of New York. For all their smartness, the buildings were monotonous, all painted the same buff colour.

Hopper, who grew up just north of New York City in a stern Baptist household, soon returned to the American metropolis, where he would reside for almost 60 years: his entire career. Something in Paris had been attractive to the young, sensitive artist – he refused to paint London, which he found “squat [and] dingy”. But in the end Paris was simply too nice for his taste – a judgement that contains a certain humility and pride. He saw something greater in the “raw disorder” of New York.

But how to render New York in art? In Paris, Hopper depicted urban infrastructure: the trusses of the Pont des Arts, dark in the mild afternoon sun, with a lilac-coloured Louvre half-obscured in the background. He tried painting New York the same way: a 1913 canvas shows Queensboro Bridge towering high over a few houses, incongruous holdouts of a previous era. But the painting is a failure. The same lilac hue Hopper used to paint the Louvre fails to impart dignity to a forlorn colonial house, and the bridge – in life, an enormous, terrible cage of steel – looks indistinct and almost quaint as it recedes into a pale blue sky. The scene demanded contrast between the oncoming violence of industrial modernity and the defenceless bucolic vestiges of the early colonial period; instead, Hopper’s version is blandly picturesque. The habits the painter had acquired in Paris appeared utterly ill-fitted to depicting American realities.

But during the 1920s, Hopper struck a rich vein in his observation of New York. His canvases gained definition and contrast; his colours became purer, more American. Infrastructure provided the setting, not the subject of his standout pictures: in the striking From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), the eponymous bridge is the artist’s vantage point on to a heterogeneous collection of apartments, in one of which a woman sits, facing away.

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The elevated trains that whisked commuters at the second-floor level past apartments allowed for tantalising glances into people’s private lives. In Night Windows (1928), the large posterior of a woman bending over is visible through a window, as a kitchen fire seems to burn out of control in an adjoining room – a scene that is ambiguously voyeuristic, ambiguously allegorical.

[See also: Nan Goldin’s politics of sex]

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How did Hopper bridge the sense of beauty and unity he saw in Europe with the contrast and chaos of American life? A key element was the mediating role played by genericity. In this regard, it was no accident that Hopper spent much of 1917-25 carrying out commercial art assignments, which provided him with the means to undertake his own artistic career. Especially lauded were his cover illustrations for issues of the Morse Dry Dock Dial, the “house organ of a major shipbuilder in Brooklyn used to boost employee morale and curb labour union efforts”, according to the Whitney.

On Hopper’s Dial covers, stylised workers swing great hammers or behold their work with hands on hips – there is the sense the viewer is seeing not a specific scene from life but a kind of archetype.

Hopper’s commercial works were potboilers, but they are not unrelated to his mature artistic oeuvre. The artist’s New York scenes all convey a sense of the generic. New York Corner (1913) is an obvious early example: in spite of the telltale smokestacks of Manhattan’s East Side, the title asks the viewer to think of the city in the abstract. Later works such as Early Sunday Morning (1930), which shows a row of shops and variously shaded second-floor windows along a typical New York street, seem intended to convey a certain idea of the city rather than a specific scene.

In no sense, though, should his detached yet probing genericity be confused with the flat melodrama of Norman Rockwell, to whom he is often compared, to Hopper’s chagrin. (“Does everything from photos; they look it, too,” Hopper said of his rival.)

This generalised quality extends to Hopper’s depiction of women as well, but for a different reason. As a young Baptist, Hopper found live-figure drawing a little shocking – and the adult painter used his wife, the artist Josephine Hopper, as almost his sole model. Although he tried hard to disguise her, all of Hopper’s women have Josephine’s broad shoulders and wide mouth. This blurring has a double valence – signalling either that, to Hopper, his wife was the first and last woman on Earth; or that in his mind she represented simply the abstract category “woman”. In the canvases where, like the tense after-hours scene Office at Night (1940), Hopper’s own desire seems present, we are compelled to ask: is he longing for Josephine, or taunting her with his desire for another?

Hopper was a close observer of the changing presence of women in the 20th-century city. Tables for Ladies (1930) signals the increasing presence of restaurants catering to unaccompanied women – a group who, the exhibition notes, were previously often assumed to be prostitutes. There are, in fact, no unaccompanied ladies in the painting – just a married couple – but women alone at home are a recurring theme in Hopper’s work. Seen through a window or facing one, clothed or nude, engaged in domestic activity or simply sitting, standing, thinking. Morning Sun (1952) shows an ageing woman in bed, facing the merciless sun and a row of brick buildings outside, displaying weariness but also a certain resolution.
The depiction is sympathetic yet brutally honest; the model, of course, was Josephine.

For the exhibition’s curator, Kim Conaty, Hopper’s was a “contrarian vision of a horizontal city” – one opposed to the skyscrapers that were then sprouting upwards in Manhattan. But his vision diverged in other ways, too. Despite Hopper’s reputation as a great realist painter, his city is noticeably cleaner, and emptier, than New York. Streets are often deserted and always free of rubbish; cafés have just a few patrons; train cars have just a few riders, sitting a few seats apart.

As the 20th century continued and New York transformed, Hopper lost many of his touchstones. Manhattan’s elevated trains were buried underground, becoming subways. Deprived of sources of keen, specific urban observation, his generic city scenes and metropolitan allegories lost some of their power. The unconvincing Office in a Small City (1953) depicts a sunken-eyed man in what looks to be a white concrete box overlooking older buildings, in an apparent dig at modernism’s lack of situation in its environment – but it is Hopper who seems most lost.

The artist, who died in 1967, painted an atomised urban landscape in an age when social ties were still strong. Although New York’s skyline is today dominated by skyscrapers, its streets strewn with garbage, its establishments cramped and busy, in some sense Hopper’s visions of solitude are closer to life now than during his career. But neither is the more exciting side of Hopper’s world totally out of reach. In the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, elevated trains still run. The passenger is still able to look out the window at apartment buildings going by: squares of yellow light in the dark, so many little stages where from time to time a figure moves, is still, is gone.

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con