On this day in 1882, the great American painter Edward Hopper was born. When I was younger, I wasn’t that impressed by him. But over time, he’s become one of my favorite artists. It’s mostly his compositions that I find stunning. Over the years, that’s what I’ve come to see as most important. Especially looking at art on a computer screen, it is hard to appreciate the micro-artistic elements. But mediocre painters have a poor sense of composition and drama. Hopper is especially interesting because he created great drama with so little.
He was raised in an upper-middle class family with a mild-mannered father in what seems to have been a matriarchal household. They did not ever seem to have to worry about money, although Hopper’s first instruction in art was via a correspondence course at the age of 17. He did eventually go the New York Institute of Art and Design for six years. For twenty years after that, he was forced to work as an illustrator for an advertising agency. I suspect that he also had some kind of trust fund, because he only worked part time. He was also able to make three trips to Paris, to check out the new trends in art there. He managed not to notice much, though. How does a young painter go to Paris three times between 1906 and 1910 and never even hear of Picasso? Well, Hopper was rather shy and I think he spent the time mostly soaking up the atmosphere and painting.
During that period, he was already doing notable work. In 1913, he sold his first painting, Sailing (painted in 1911). I’m not that fond of it, but you can definitely see how it fits into his artistic development. It was not really the beginning of a new career, however; more a one-off. He continued his freelance advertising work.
At around this time, he started to do etching, which until today I had no knowledge of. Much of it is really good. Here is Night Shadows from 1921. I think it shows the development of his compositional skill. I love the extreme perspective:
Clearly, at this point in his life he was grasping for anything that worked. As he was perfecting his etching skills, he started to work in watercolors. This work is excellent as well. By 1920, he was clearly doing great work, but no one had really noticed. He became involved with fellow painter Josephine Nivison in 1923. Being outgoing, she was able to get Hopper more attention, leading eventually to his first solo commercial exhibit 1924 (the same year he and Nivison married), where all the paintings sold. And the rest, as they say, is history.
His style stayed much the same throughout his career, but especially in the 1940s and 1950s, his work is more finished. Consider, for example, New York Restaurant from 1923:
And Hotel Lobby from 1943:
I’m actually rather fond of his less finished work. In fact, I most like that aspect of his work early on, right after leaving school. But he hadn’t perfected his compositional style at that point, so I didn’t present any. Regardless, all of his work is interesting and worth checking out.
Happy birthday Edward Hopper!
Here is one of my favor Janis Ian songs, “Hopper Painting”: