Beyond realism: 10 things to know about Edward Hopper
The realist painter’s haunting images have become emblematic of 20th-century urban life
In 1930 Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925) was one of the first paintings to be acquired for the collection of the newly founded Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hopper (1882-1967) was 48 at the time and had finally been accepted as an American master after years as a struggling artist.
‘A lot of people say American art didn’t start until 1945,’ says Christie’s specialist Paige Kestenman, ‘but in fact, the post-war generation owed much to the country’s earlier Modernists’.
Hopper remained a realist painter throughout his career, despite the explosion of abstract art in the 20th century. ‘His paintings have stood the test of time,’ says Kestenman. His most famous, Nighthawks (1942), bought by the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000 shortly after it was painted, is ‘one of the most recognisable paintings of the 20th century’.
Hopper’s market has steadily grown over the past decade. His auction record was set at Christie’s in 2018 when Chop Suey (1929), characteristic of his interiors from that decade, sold for $91.9 million.
That broke his previous record achieved at Christie’s in 2013, when East Wind Over Weehawken (1934), which was deaccessioned by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, doubled its estimate to sell for $40.5 million.
Hopper’s work was even given presidential approval when Barack Obama borrowed two of his paintings from the Whitney Museum of American Art for the Oval Office during his administration, and many of the ‘isolation’ memes posted on the internet during the Covid pandemic appropriated his images of urban alienation.
This resurgence of interest chimes with the renewed popularity of representational painting in general. A rare landscape in oil, Cape Ann Granite (1928), sold as part of the Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection in 2018, drew interest globally, she says, while institutions from the Whitney to Basel’s Fondation Beyeler and the Grand Palais in Paris have staged major Hopper retrospectives in the past ten years.
‘Hopper’s influence is broader than I think people know,’ says Kestenman. She sees it today in painters such as Peter Doig, who play with representation ‘but are distorting it to create psychologically consuming works’.
The art historian Gail Levin, who compiled Hopper’s catalogue raisonné, suggests he influenced film directors from the 1950s onwards, including Alfred Hitchcock and Terrence Malick.
Hopper and his wife Josephine loved Cape Cod, and in the 1930s built a small house in the village of Truro, where they would spend many summers. But unlike many East Coast painters from Winslow Homer to Stuart Davis, who concentrated on views of boats on the sea, Hopper was not going for the most panoramic, picturesque vistas. Instead, he chose ageing buildings or inland views, imbuing them with the sense of detachment that became his signature. ‘It feels like you’re driving by these unique locations with him in the car,’ she adds.
Dead Tree and Side of Lombard House (1931) is among the watercolours that avoid an idealised view of Cape Cod summers. Paloma Alarcó, the chief curator of modern painting at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which owns the painting, writes that the ‘skeleton [of the tree] adds a melancholy note to the solitary house and the silence of the place, a silence that can almost be heard when viewing this work’.
Commenting on the relevance of Hopper to a world recently thrown into social isolation, the critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker in 2020 that ‘Hopper is more properly a Symbolist’.
While he did draw and paint from life his oils were chiefly composites of sketches, and represent not-quite-real places. He was deliberate about how he altered his scenes, cutting off doors or closing them to make spaces seem quite inaccessible.
These choices add to a mood of isolation and unease. When MoMA acquired Gas (1940), a picture of a petrol station, it noted that ‘behind the commonplace reality which his pictures present with such factual objectivity one can feel an underlying spirit of romantic mystery’.
Until his breakthrough as a painter in the late-1920s Hopper made a living by working as a commercial illustrator, and in 1915 added another string to his bow by taking up etching. The immediacy of the medium suited him, and his prints are masterclasses in atmosphere that show the influence of graphic works by Rembrandt, Goya and Whistler.
Hopper had sold only one painting when, in 1923, his print East Side Interior won the Logan Prize from the Chicago Society of Etchers and the W.A. Bryan Prize. This success gave him the confidence to focus again on painting.
Later that year the Brooklyn Museum bought his watercolour The Mansard Roof (1923) — only the second painting he had sold and the first to a major institution. A sell-out solo exhibition at Frank Rehn’s Fifth Avenue gallery the following year established him as a major talent.
Hopper had encountered contemporary European art on three trips to Paris in the early 1900s, but wasn’t taken with the avant garde. He preferred the work of past generations: Manet, Courbet, Pissarro and the Impressionists made the most impact on him.
In New York he was represented by the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, along with the artist Charles Burchfield, whom Hopper admired, but he never became part of ‘the Alfred Stieglitz circle’ of American Modernist painters, which included Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin.
Some overlap exists between Hopper and other 1920s painters who were also looking at urban life, but unlike them he wasn’t interested in the technological wonders of the day. Even if he was painting a new bridge, he would look at the tenements in the distance.
In many senses Hopper’s life was a slow-burn. He did not make a living from his art until he was in his 40s, and from his earliest days he completed just five canvases a year on average.
This was partly down to his meticulous working process: there are 53 surviving preparatory sketches for his celebrated picture New York Movie (1939), now in the collection of MoMA.
Hopper exhibited more spontaneity with watercolours, says Kestenman, ‘although they’re highly finished and certainly complete works of art in their own right’. With these she thinks he also came closer to the Impressionists he so admired: ‘You can see he really delights in light.’
Josephine Nivison and Hopper first met as students, many years before they married in 1924. Initially she was the more successful artist, and she introduced him to the gallerist Frank Rehn. They found each other’s work mutually inspiring, but as his star rose, hers fell, and the relationship became complicated. She began keeping meticulous notes about all of Hopper’s works. ‘She referred to the paintings as their children,’ says Kestenman. ‘So it was very co-dependent — Hopper let her do all of the backend work and depended on her for it. But it definitely was quite a tumultuous relationship as well.’
His work is testament to their intimacy, as most of his female figures were modelled on his wife. The 1945 canvas Two Puritans, depicting a pair of unassuming Cape Cod homes, is thought to be a symbolic double portrait of the couple — one large house, one small, with architectural details like facial features. Hopper painted one of his final paintings, Two Comedians (1965), at the age of 83, and it poignantly shows a male and a female clown bowing out on a stark theatre stage. Hopper died in 1967, and Josephine a year later.
Hopper disliked the notion that his pictures told something as neat as a story, and what they don’t tell is part of their enduring appeal. As the novelist Annie Proulx has written: ‘Anyone who looks at a Hopper becomes involved.’
In an interview to mark his contribution to In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper — an anthology that also featured stories by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates among others — the novelist Lee Child said: ‘Show ten writers ten Hopper paintings and you’re going to have 34 stories by the end of the day.’
Hopper himself was famously taciturn. In a rare televised interview in 1962 the critic Brian O’Doherty asked if his paintings reflect the loneliness and isolation of ‘modern man’. ‘I think those are the words of critics,’ replied Hopper. ‘It may be true. It may not be true.’
Among his few revealing statements he said: ‘What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.’