No artist better captured the character and condition of mid-century American life than Edward Hopper. His distinct and lonely aesthetic, much as the rogue tides of the East River depicted in Blackwell's Island, remained doggedly realist as his peers increasingly embraced abstract forms of expression. Painted in the fall of 1928, a watershed year for Hopper both creatively and critically, Blackwell's Island embodies the haunting drama and quiet tension that characterize the artist's best work.
Hopper's early years spent studying painting at the New York School of Art with Robert Henri, the leading promoter of the Ash Can School, were a formative experience that colored the remainder of his career. His classmates at the school included many young luminaries such as Gifford Beal, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Guy Pène du Bois.
Although the mature style of Blackwell's Island marks a distinct departure from Henri's painterly and bravura depictions of the gritty side of the city, Hopper always embraced one of the older artist's central teachings: to paint the city and street life he knew best. Over twenty years later, Hopper wrote of Henri, "No single figure in recent American art has been so instrumental in setting free the hidden forces that can make of the art of this country a living expression of its character and its people...Of Henri's renown as a teacher everyone knows; of his enthusiasm and his power to energize his students I had firsthand knowledge. Few teachers of art have gotten as much out of their pupils, or given them as great an initial impetus." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, pp. 17-18)
Henri's early encouragement to look to his surroundings for subject matter stayed with Hopper throughout his career and the subjects of many of his great works, including Blackwell's Island, are those of quotidian, distinctly American scenes, which moved him. Hopper commented, "My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects rather than others, I do not exactly know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best medium for a synthesis of my inner experience." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, n.p.)
Hopper's depictions of New York focused on the quiet aspects of the city and differed from those of his peers, who were instead drawn to the vibrant energy of the burgeoning metropolis. Carol Troyen writes, "Hopper had no interest in the principal pictorial motifs of the Jazz Age city--the skyscraper and the machine--nor in the symbols of the dominant literary subjects, which were commerce, capitalism, and the lure of money. The city's bustling crowds also held little appeal. Rather, the view of New York that Hopper presented in this period served those who were uncomfortable with the city's raucous excitement, those who believed, as did journalist Walter Lippmann in 1925, 'that the clamor of life in the city should not be acknowledged as an American ideal.' According to Hopper's close friend Guy Pène du Bois, 'His New York City is one that people with their restless need for change have overlooked; it is part of its backwaters untouched by the swift current of the main tide...His realities are in the past of his youth.'" ("'The Sacredness of Everyday Fact': Hopper's Pictures of the City," Edward Hopper, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 2007, p. 111) Even his choice of architecture, as seen in Blackwell's Island, was of an earlier vintage than the shiny, new skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building, which captivated his peers.
Hopper was drawn to New York's turbid East River, taking its banks and bridges as his subject several times between 1911 and 1935. He first depicted Blackwell's Island, the cigar-shaped 1¾ mile land mass that sits in the East River between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens in a moonlit scene of 1911 (Blackwell's Island, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). The island, originally called Hog Island and today known as Roosevelt Island, was well known to New Yorkers as its notorious history includes being the site of a prison and an insane asylum. It was, however, the varied architecture and isolation of the place that appealed to Hopper, and in the present work he depicts the island from across the river, capturing the dramatic effects of light and shadow on buildings silhouetted against against a band of largely cloudless sky.
Hopper was a keen and detached observer and his most successful paintings are imbued with a sense of impenetrable distance between the viewer and the subject that creates unease. Troyen writes that his way of seeing the city in the 1920s was influenced by photographers such as Charles Sheeler, Karl Strauss and Alvin Langdon Coburn, "who exploited the dramatic vantage points available from upper floors of the new skyscrapers to produce vertiginous images of the streets and walkways below." (Edward Hopper, 2007, p. 112) While he shared their keen interest in the at times dramatic effects of light and shadow on the city's architecture, unlike these photographers, Hopper was less drawn to the visually arresting character of this type of vantage point than to the sense of detachment it created in his art.
Throughout his career, Hopper was drawn to water as a major compositional element, beginning with his depictions of the Seine while he was studying in Paris and his coastal Maine paintings of 1910s to The Bootleggers (1924 or 1925, The Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester New Hampshire) and Blackwell's Island of the 1920s, Apartment Houses Harlem River (circa 1930, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Macomb's Dam Bridge (1935, The Brooklyn Museum, New York), The Long Leg (1935, The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California), Five A.M. (1937, Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas) and Ground Swell (1939, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) of the 1930s, Lee Shore (1941, Private collection) and The Martha McKeem of Wellfleet (1944, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano, Switzerland) of the 1940s and finally, to Rooms By the Sea (1951, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut) and Sea Watchers (1952, Private collection) of the 1950s.
The draw of water for Hopper was three-fold. It acted as a natural barrier between the artist, and thus the viewer, and the subject, much as the rural roads and train tracks that also recur in his works-the natural barrier symbolic of psychological distance. It also allowed Hopper to introduce an element of motion into an oeuvre that is largely defined and dominated by stillness. Often, as in Blackwell's Island, the juxtaposition of the moving water with the other pictorial elements acts a foil, further heightening their weight and solidity--the architectural angles set off against the smooth, circular currents. Finally, in its constant motion and expanse beyond the confines of the canvas, in its elemental presence, the inclusion of water alludes to the more existential themes that dominate Hopper's art.
In Blackwell's Island there is a quiet tension that permeates the picture, creating a subtle sense of enigma that stirs both a visual and visceral response in the unmoored viewer, who is forced to contemplate the island from across a swath of turbulent water. This was recognized at the time and referred to as "a brooding, faintly sinister stillness" by a contemporary critic in the New York Herald Tribune. The seemingly unpopulated landmass simultaneously entices and rebuffs as the one building that directly faces the viewer is cast in deep shadow and the others vexingly face southeast. The only sign of human presence--the figure in the boat--has his back to the viewer, headed towards an unknown destination. Blackwell's Island is a stunning representation of Annie Proulx's statement that "Hopper painted the feeling familiar to most humans--the triste embedded in existence, in our intimate knowledge of the solitude of the self." ("Only the Lonely," The Guardian, May 7, 2004)
Hopper's wife, Jo, wrote of the present work in her record book "Blackwell's Island. Painted in the N.Y. studio. Foreground-much water drawn in cobalt blue dra[?]. Small white motorboat going off to right. Long strip of island, dark silhouette buildings, raised water tank in silhouette at left. Much sky. Cloudy formation-ciel flanconneuse." (Artist's ledger: Book I, p. 57) The painting is a carefully constructed composition meant to capture and convey Hopper's response to the place, rather than a mere transcription of the scene. The artist worked in his usual laborious method, beginning with sketches from life and completing the painting in his studio--omitting and inserting pictorial elements to create a sense of isolation and yearning in the viewer. There are five extant sketches for Blackwell's Island, each depicting different elements of the finished work that Hopper combined and edited to create a scene that is simultaneously recognizable and anonymous.
Hopper wrote of his creative process, "I spend many days usually before I find a subject that I like well enough to do, and spend a long time on the proportions of the canvas, so that it will do for the design, as nearly as possible what I wish it to do." He went on to discuss his choice of canvas size for Manhattan Bridge Loop, (The Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts) and as it is the same size as Blackwell's Island and also painted in 1928, one can assume that the artist had similar intentions in the present work: "The very long horizontal shape is an effort to give a sensation of great lateral extent. Carrying the main horizontal lines of the design with little interruption to the edge of the picture, is to enforce this idea and to make one conscious of the spaces and elements beyond the limits of the scene itself. The consciousness of these spaces is always carried by the artist to the very limited space of the subject that he intends to paint, though I believe all painters are not aware of this." (October 19, 1939 letter to Charles Sawyer) Indeed, Blackwell's Island is composed of three horizontal bands--water, land and sky--each of which extend to the edge of, and beyond, the picture plane.
In Blackwell's Island as in all Hopper's best works, the painting acts much as a film still, creating a suspended narrative that continually engages the viewer's psyche and imagination as he tries to reconcile himself with a scene that eludes resolution. This is further heightened by the pervasive and haunting silence of the painting. Terry Sullivan wrote of Hopper's mastery of silence, "in his hands, silence is transformed into frozen moments of profound feeling and mystery" and indeed, that is its effect in Blackwell's Island. ("Edward Hopper's Moments of Mystery," American Artist, March/April 2011, p. 25) Blackwell's Island is a visually striking painting that manifests Hopper's unique aesthetic, which defined him as an artist, distinguished him from his peers and garnered him critical acclaim that continues to this day.