Painted in March 1934, shortly after Edward Hopper's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and during a moment when he was rethinking his art, East Wind Over Weehawken can be seen as the birth of his fully realized, mature artistic vision. This masterwork manifests Hopper's celebrated aesthetic, which distinguished him from his peers and created a uniquely American iconography that continues to define him as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century.
As with all his most successful works, in East Wind Over Weehawken, Hopper maintains a strong sense of place and an overt realism, while seeking to capture what he described in 1933 as "the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature." (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 161) Here he masterfully elevates a commonplace subject to express the realities of post-Depression life in America.
Hopper acknowledged East Wind Over Weehawken as one of his most important paintings, writing, "I have always thought of it as one of my best pictures." (unpublished letter to Joseph T. Fraser, April 8, 1952) This sentiment was echoed in 1952 by his long-time dealer, Frank Rehn, who commented, "East Wind Over Weehawken is certainly one of the most Hopperesque canvases he has ever painted." (unpublished letter to Joseph T. Fraser, March 12, 1952)
Hopper's early years were spent studying at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri, the leading promoter of the Ashcan School. Here he learned about the American realist tradition that began with Thomas Eakins, who Hopper later acknowledged as "one of his heroes" (as quoted in D. Ottinger, et al., Hopper, Paris, 2012, p. 20) and gained an appreciation for the work of Edouard Manet alongside young luminaries that included Gifford Beal, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Guy Pène du Bois. Although the mature style of East Wind Over Weehawken marks a distinct departure from Henri's painterly and bravura depictions of the gritty side of the city, the work reflects Hopper's lifelong adoption of one of the older artist's central teachings: to paint the city and street life he knew best. 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 East Wind Over Weehawken, are those of quotidian, distinctly American scenes which moved him.
While Hopper's early pictures directly demonstrate Henri's influence with their focus on the bustle of the city, mature works such as East Wind Over Weehawken demonstrate a fundamental shift in both his choice of and his approach to his subject. This distinguished Hopper from his contemporaries and accounts for his singular and lasting artistic vision. In East Wind Over Weekhawken he takes as his subject a sleepy New Jersey town across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where he had traveled on the ferry, seeking architectural inspiration for the home and studio that he and his wife, Jo, were getting ready to build in South Truro on Cape Cod. Here Hopper depicts a characteristically overlooked area on the fringe of the thriving urban hub, presenting an image of the banal reality of American life that captures the overarching character and condition of mid-century existence in the United States.
Hopper's persistent interest in the vernacular in works such as East Wind Over Weehawken further distinguished him from his peers and set him apart from the artistic movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Lloyd Goodrich wrote of Hopper's distinct style and vision, "His art was based on the ordinary aspects of the contemporary United States, in city, town, and country, seen with uncompromising truthfulness. No artist has painted a more revealing portrait of twentieth-century America. But he was not merely an objective realist. His art was charged with strong personal emotion, with a deep attachment to our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 15)
In East Wind Over Weehawken Hopper presents a quiet street in the "cold raw weather" of a March afternoon. While the houses are all in good order, the financial woes of the town's inhabitants are indicated by the "For Sale" sign and the unkempt lawns. There are no cars on the street or people visible on the porches or in the houses' windows. The only human presence is a distant group of figures at far left, imbuing the work with an eerie silence. Similar to the "For Sale" sign that is vexingly difficult to read, it is impossible to discern for what purpose the group of people at far left has convened. Hopper deliberately crops the image so that the answer appears to be just beyond the edge of the canvas, introducing an unresolved narrative that simultaneously entices and rebuffs the viewer as he or she continually tries to decipher the scene.
Hopper's oeuvre is defined by works such as East Wind Over Weehawken--scenes of quiet tension that create a visceral unease in the viewer. In his closely cropped interiors, this tension is manifested through estranged human relations. In East Wind Over Weehawken, Hopper masterfully utilizes the various compositional elements and perspective to create the tension and anticipation that are characteristic of his best work. He creates a shallow, stage-like pictorial space, using the impenetrable wall of houses to vexingly focus the viewer's attention in the foreground, and the scene operates much like a film still, a single vision isolated from an overarching narrative. This is further heightened by the subject itself, which is common enough to feel familiar and yet rendered in such an anonymous fashion so as to make it feel foreign. This creates a continuously engaging dichotomy as the viewer continuously tries to reconcile him or herself with the emotions the scene evokes.
The perspective in East Wind Over Weehawken is as if one is looking through a car window, having come to an intersection. Windows, whether depicted or implied, architectural or vehicular, are a central component of the Hopper's work that imbue his oeuvre with a sense of detached voyeurism--of being outside looking in. In many of Hopper's paintings and watercolors from the 1930s onward, the invisible presence, actual or implied, of the automobile succeeded the artist's earlier practice of peering through windows while riding the El trains in New York City. Hopper's effective and varied use of windows in masterworks such as East Wind Over Weehawken, Nighthawks and Room in New York not only imbues them with a sense of voyeurism, but also compels the viewer to reflect on the isolation of the individual in modern society.
The sense of psychological distance and tension in East Wind Over Weehawken is further heightened by Hopper's use of form, line and color. He concentrates the composition on the interplay of architecture and employs these elements to create a sense of ambiguity and suspense that is reminiscent of the works of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. The repetition of triangular and rectangular forms bisected by strong vertical and horizontal lines gives the painting complexity and rhythm and leads the eye down the street; until it is blocked by the row of houses at the far left and sent back over the forms. As with all of Hopper's most successful works, there is a strong sense of wanting to get beyond the buildings, to see over them, to see behind the building in the foreground, to see around the curve in the road--yet the eye runs up and down the street unable to move beyond and continually forced back into the scene. There is a sense of thwarted exit as the diagonal of one side of the stone wall leads the viewer into the scene, while the diagonal of the other side, leads him or her out, but out to something that is beyond the picture plane. Similarly, the well-lit steps invite the viewer into the various homes, only to be rebuffed by the deeply shadowed porches; and the lightly colored window shades catch the viewer's eye, while the opaque curtains prevent one from seeing in the windows. The prominent lamppost in the foreground--the only pictorial element that spans the entire height of the composition--creates a physical barrier between the viewer and the scene, immediately relegating one to the role of observer rather than participant. Hopper began using this type of vertical visual blockade as early as 1914 in his French café scene, Soir Bleu (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and its function in both paintings is similar to the railroad tracks, country roads and waterways of Hopper's other major works--as a pictorial element that physically and visually blocks the viewer from entering the scene.
The success of East Wind Over Weehawken is due to Hopper's arduous creative process in which every aspect of the composition, both what was to be included and what was to be omitted, was carefully planned out before he put brush to canvas. Lloyd Goodrich wrote of Hopper's method, "His pictures were conceived by a complex process that included first hand observation, memory, severe simplification, and a creative synthesis of all elements into imagery that had universal and permanent meaning. He was a highly conscious composer, and through command of massive form, full-bodied color and all-revealing light, he achieved plastic designs of great substance, power and completeness." (Edward Hopper at Kennedy Galleries, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1977, n.p.) Hopper made eight preparatory drawings for East Wind Over Weehawken, each of a different degree of finish and some only a series of isolated pictorial elements with notes on color and mood. He then translated these grey-scale visual notions onto canvas through the veil of memory to present a finished composition, which conveys his experience of the scene in his compelling and melancholic style and characteristically inspires existential contemplations on isolation in modern society.
In East Wind Over Weehawken, and throughout his career, Hopper painted aspects of America that few other artists addressed. He portrayed unromantic visions of life in a broad and increasingly modern style, and, while his paintings have formal qualities in common with other Modernists, his art remained steadfastly realist. Hopper emphasized the importance of his realism as an expression of his own, deeper, aesthetic sense. Many of his younger contemporaries, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, increasingly embraced abstraction, abandoning the American realist tradition to form a new and internationally celebrated school of Abstract Expressionism. However, Hopper was one of the few realist artists admired by these younger painters, which is a testament to his importance during his lifetime. James Thrall Soby wrote, "It always astonished me that these young artists exempted the late Hopper from their acrimony against the realist tradition." William Seitz, the organizer of the 1967 São Paolo Biennale that included East Wind Over Weehawken alongside work by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, similarly wrote, "He was highly regarded by advocates of both representational and abstract painting, and by avant-gardists as well as conservatives." (quoted in D. Ottinger, Hopper, Paris, 2012, p. 17)
Hopper's choice, and his earnest and slightly romantic representation, of seemingly mundane subject matter in seminal works such as East Wind Over Weehawken set him apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to create a new and uniquely American iconography. Today, Hopper's importance as one of the great artists of the twentieth century is recognized on an international level. On the occasion of the most recent retrospective of his work, which included East Wind Over Weehawken, Guillermo Solana and Jean-Paul Cluzel wrote, "His uncommon sensitivity, his distanced perspective on the world, and his sense of drama have earned him a significant place in the history of modern art. Hopper's work not only casts a spotlight on the birth of American modernity, but also marks the advent of a form of artistic creation entirely his own. His work is recognized throughout the world and his paintings, with their very particular atmosphere, now form part of our collective imagination." (Hopper, 2012, n.p.) East Wind Over Weehawken is a testament to the transcendent power of Hopper's aesthetic and a masterwork of twentieth-century art that is as compelling to contemporary viewers as it was when first shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1934.