PRINT October 1968

Edward Hopper

EDWARD HOPPER’S CAREER RESEMBLES that of many American painters of this century, in the sense that its several components can be readily paralled individually in the styles of numbers of other artists: what is unique about Hopper is their fusion, and that is one reason for the particular esteem in which he is held. His subjects are representational, but his design is formalistic and abstract; they are parochial, but the procedures by which they are rendered derive from the stylish, cosmopolitan lineage of Manet and Degas; they are romantically moody, but they are grasped with an economy that is cerebral, or at any rate strict. In these respects, as in others, Hopper juggles elements that we normally oppose but of which he makes a single experience—in the last analysis, I think, the past, since he seems to be a traditionalist, and the present, since he seems to be committed to the actuality of his local scene. And it is in this equivocation that his appeal consists, as well as his stature, since he was able to achieve what everyone else only dreams about: he was able to command reality to such an extent that he was free from history.*

Hopper began, in the first decade of the century, as a pupil of Henri and a follower of the so-called Ash Can School: That is to say, of a group of fundamentally ambivalent realists, who worked with native subjects but in a manner that was almost wholly French in its sensuous, virtuoso brushwork and who prettified their unlovely motifs still more with the sort of anecdotal human interest that has always been a temptation to artists who are realistic only up to a point. And the realism was diluted not only by the implicit sentimentality of the anecdotal elements but even more, in the case of some, by the formalism of the design, which once again was French. It is not surprising, then, that the work Hopper did during his three trips to France between 1906 and 1910 does not differ significantly from such American motifs as the El Station of 1908: the paint is equally sensuous, the palette equally tasteful and the shapes equally generalized and almost abstract—they are forms before they are either America or France. Even the famous Railroad Train (1908) is extrapolated from Degas in its use of the predominant diagonal plane that is abruptly cut off by the frame. Hopper was later to abandon the belle peinture, and anecdotal he had never been, but as even this brief analysis will suggest these elements are simply symptoms of deeper tendencies that persisted in other forms, and it is important to stress that Hopper was never to resolve or transcend the basic ambivalences involved in the work of this period—luckily, for if he had, his art would have been as limited as that of his contemporaries.

He exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913, that vast artistic circus which was meant to bemuse America into swallowing the European avant-garde in one massive dose, and he even sold a picture, but it was the last he sold for ten years. During this time he made his living as a commercial artist and his meagre serious output consisted principally of etchings. These reveal the mixture we have already seen of French art and (an increasingly strong feeling for) American life, and while in these etchings Hopper was doubtless working out his repertory of American motifs, he was also, in such plates as Night Shadows, working out a way to cast them in a French mold; what this mold consists of we shall see in a moment. Meanwhile, Hopper was in effect out of circulation, and this is a crucial fact. The Armory Show was so important in American art not for the art it produced but for the attitude of which it was the origin, it established the new as the basic criterion and value, a position it has held to the present day. Hopper, owing to his inactivity and obscurity, was saved from adopting this obligatory modernism. That is to say, he was free to be both representational in style and provincial in subject; and while, as I have suggested, these qualities may in him be equivocal, they still had sufficient force to shield him from an art that was overtly modernist and abstract.

It was in the early twenties that Hopper began to exhibit and sell again, and here is another of those crucial coincidences, for the twenties saw the development of the art of the “American scene.” The phrase is unhappy: today even more than before we tend to forget how dissimilar are our views of our own land. Tot homines quot sententiae. At any rate, Hopper’s art was permanently marked by various attitudes that were in the air at that time, yet because of the particular combination of elements in his background he was unlike any of the other American scene painters, whatever their tendency. The anecdotal interest of Marsh he could not have adopted had he wanted to because of his concern with form. The jingoism of Curry or Wood he was probably too cosmopolitan even to comprehend. He was, of course, closer to Burchfield, but Burchfield’s spooky animism was too emotive to suit either his French formalist or his Ash Can realist origins. And meanwhile, as I have said, his absence from the post-Armory art world had left him free: he could temper post-Armory abstraction with the tendency toward mere formalism he had already gotten from the late 19th-century French tradition, and he could play the result against the realities—anecdotal, regional or fantastic—of the American scene, maintaining himself in as flexible a situation as was possible in the broad territory between Baroque revival on the one hand and Cubist provincial on the other. I think that in this way he was able to avoid, willfully or out of principle, setting himself tests he would have been sure to fail.

The range of subjects that henceforth characterized his work are the memorable images we all know: the Victorian Gothic facades, the lonely diners in garishly lit cafeterias, the bleak nudes awakening to face a hard, wan light in some cheaply furnished hotel room, the deserted gas stations and motionless trains. Precisely now, however, when Hopper was supposedly realizing himself by finding these subjects in the American scene, the French influences become especially obvious—not more prevalent than later, simply less thoroughly assimilated and so easier to see. In many cases, the derivation is specific: for example, Tables for Ladies would not have been possible without Manet’s café scenes. But apart from such specific borrowings, there is something far more fundamental and that we have noted twice already, apropos of Railroad Train and of the etchings of 1915–23. It is a compositional device that is central to nearly all Hopper’s mature work, and it consists in the off-center perspective and abruptly interrupted diagonals that were developed by Degas and that give to all work depending on them a markedly formalistic character, contrived if not quite artificial. If one compares Corner Saloon (1913) with Drug Store (1927) or American Landscape, an etching of 1920, with House by the Railroad, of 1925—two pairs of nearly identical motifs—the difference in design is apparent. The earlier works are arranged in a pattern of horizontals and verticals, that is, of lines parallel with the frame and by that fact relatively static and limited in their spatial effect; while in the later paintings the forms are tilted to become diagonals angling obliquely away from the picture surface into a deeper and more dynamic space.

Hopper’s reasons for following this method of composition cannot have been very different from Degas’ in developing it in the first place. For one thing, it gave the box-shaped depth of the traditional “window onto space” a sort of shot in the arm by viewing the box from one corner, rather than showing the space it enclosed from the exact center of one side. Secondly, Hopper had Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis just as Degas had Zola and the tranche de vie: and the diagonals of which this kind of design so largely consists tend, as we have seen, to lead off the frame, especially since the perspective is not symmetrically centered, causing the motif in the painting to appear merely as an arbitrary section of an infinitely extensible reality. It is fixed or frozen in a moment of which the particularity is, almost, not even in its concentration, since the concentration is given such a markedly ethical inclination. I mean that selectivity of image and focus of design—in other words the intensity of the painting as an artifice—are ancillary to the fact that the image is made to serve a truth, so that whatever validity it may have as a particular depends on its participation in a generality. In addition, since this procedure was by Hopper’s time so thoroughly cosmopolitan, its use enabled him to paint the American scene without being “buckeye,” that is, without being too provincial to do important work. Thus it happened that virtually all the best-known works of Hopper’s maturity depend in their structure on this single but effective device: Manhattan Bridge Loop, Dawn in Pennsylvania, Nighthawks, Pennsylvania Coal Town, Hotel by a Railroad, Sun in an Empty Room.

In the light of what has gone before, one can surmise why I have delayed saying more about Hopper’s subject matter and above all about the mood it creates and of which so much has been written. It is often important, but it is not always important, and it is never of primary importance. Indeed, at the risk of being thought insensitive, I have to confess that I often find Hopper’s feeling for the particular time and the particular place or thing undeveloped. To compare The Camel’s Hump with the watercolor, California Hills, who would guess that the scene in one is on Cape Cod while the other is across the country? What Hopper has seen here, as in his very early American and French paintings, are not particular places but underlying shapes. The difference between the earlier paintings and the later is a gain in density or presence, of feeling as well as of materiality, but not of individuation. You could say that there is a gain in awareness but not in the rendering of the particular perception the awareness begins with, since Hopper’s people, while they come to be drawn more firmly than Pène du Bois’ are not less generalized, while his places and objects are typical—essential, not accidental—and are documentary only in that sense. Even his most American-scene paintings are constructs before they are anything else. Indeed, one of the best of them, East Wind over Weehawken, is so immediate simply because it derives so patently from Burchfield. Hopper’s other masterpiece in this genre, Pennsylvania Coal Town, is far more conceptual, and it owes the reality that it certainly has to the paradoxical fact that this provincial town is an anachronistic backwater, quite outside the main current, and this remoteness accords very well with the kind of distance that a basically intellectual, formalistic style always interposes between subject and object, spectator and motif. The distance is not that of irony, of which there is none in Hopper, but comes rather from the intensity of his engrossment in a formal construction. Where this distance is lacking, as in Western Motel, the work is not credible. When it is successful, then, Hopper’s American-scene art uses a romantic nostalgia for the superannuated to provide or reinforce the detachment that conceptual design requires; which is another way of saying that the content in these paintings has been largely purified of its topical relevance, or its value as documentation in that sense. What is characteristic about a situation or a motif can be distilled, with Hopper, only when the situation has been insulated from or lifted out of what he conceives of as an incessant flux or current or process; and so it is shown to be transitory more than transitional, since its dereliction is already accomplished. These subjects may be grubby and down-at-heel, but they are not primarily so. It is rather that, because history has passed them by, leaving them isolated from a larger and more immediate context, they can be all the more wholly absorbed into the process of generalization that in Hopper is so pronounced.

It is entirely in keeping with this that, since the forties, something else had been happening to Hopper’s content: his motifs had increasingly become assimilated each to the other. The woman in the bedroom may be nude (Morning in a City), or she may be clothed (City Sunlight); the paintings of couples may imply some sex (Excursion into Philosophy) or may not (Hotel by a Railroad). In either case the works have a great deal in common and the differences seem superficial. The bleak couples may be watching the sea (Sea Watchers) or they may be watching the empty highway by the gas station (Four Lane Road); but what they watch does not seem to matter and they are in addition rather like the couples in rooms to whom I have just referred. Or again, the sharp diagonals of the house and the heavy curves of the young woman may be set against the vague and close shapes of trees (Second-Story Sunlight) or against an endless and distant kind of savannah (High Noon); the plain is as empty as the sea in Sea Watchers and the trees are those we have just seen by the gas station in Four Lane Road. In this way, the motifs cross and recross, and in the end the web of associations is so tangled that its individual components can no longer be distinguished. Everything means the same thing, which is another way of saying that the motif or the content are not specific but are highly generalized.

Why this came about is not hard to surmise. For one thing, there had been a kind of latent symbolism in much of Hopper’s work that is far from distinguished. I have already mentioned, for example, the contrasts one finds between the rigid geometry of houses and the heavy, irregular forms of young women. One sees the point, but one wonders if it was really worth making; certainly a statement of this sort will never lead to an enduring work of art. Then again, if the American scene becomes too particularized, the picture becomes provincialized, and as I have already suggested this, too, sets a limit on the importance of one’s art. Finally, the move away from particularization of motif must, in any coherent work, be accompanied by a corresponding generalization of the form, and this, as we have seen, had always been such a pronounced facet of Hopper’s sensibility anyway. Thus, a great deal led Hopper away from a content that was specific.

I do not mean to suggest that what results is an art that has been drained of its substance. Actually, I think that Hopper’s is a symbolic art, but in a particular sense. There is a tendency for any naturalistic art, such as Hopper’s is, to become abstract, since for the naturalistic painter there is no hierarchy of subjects. Anything can serve as the subject of a serious painting; and where this is so, then no subject is especially important, and if subject does not predominate then the only things that can are the techniques and forms through which it is rendered, which is to say abstraction. Basically, this is the reason for the very pronounced abstract tendency we have noticed many times in Hopper. Now since realism cannot be looked to in order to counterbalance abstraction, Hopper turned to symbolism instead. It is important to remember whether you are talking about subject or subjects, being or perception. If you are talking about subject, as I was a moment ago, then for a naturalist all subjects are equivalent since none is inherently more noble than another; they are indifferent in their being. But if you are talking about subjects, they can of course be very unlike, especially for a naturalist, depending on what they mean to him. So in the perceiving a naturalist can select, and he will, to the extent that in his work he is more concerned with truths than with truth, since obviously all subjects are not equally apt to serve a given, particular truth. Their value as individuals is in their appropriateness to represent. In Hopper one can say that “everything means the same thing,” as I did a couple of paragraphs ago, only because in his work “everything” is a selection from what is itself a chosen register of experience. It is in this sense that Hopper’s work is symbolic and his symbols are specific and concrete. The motifs in Hopper are not American scene subjects treated by Hopper but Hopper subjects.

Now from this, two consequences follow. The first is that one must look for the meaning of these symbols, as we tried to do when we noticed their interrelatedness, in themselves—the frequency of motifs and the contexts in which they occur. It is a kind of symbolization that has predominated for the last couple of centuries: Delacroix does not tell you what a tiger means for him, and you cannot isolate the image, isolate an idea and equate the two. The only way to discover what it means is to juxtapose all his renditions of tigers and see what they add up to, and so reconstruct the entire level of experience in which this image has its sense. For where collective symbols are lacking the artist must create his own, and because collective symbols are lacking the artist does not fully know the meaning of his own, but discovers it, and so discovers himself, in his work. Which is why Hopper’s images are never more surprising than when they are most inevitably right.

The second consequence is that since these symbols tend in their references to form a closed circle—after all, they could not very well refer to anything but themselves, since it is what they have in common for Hopper that caused him to create them in the first place—the artist will turn to form as a way out of subject, for the consummation of significance that it affords. And Hopper was all the more encouraged in this reaction by the several impasses, indicated a few paragraphs ago, into which a too specific notion of motif might have led him. The providential result was that Hopper came to see the fundamental thing as no other painter of the American scene has, namely that in the objective work of art itself, a symbolic statement is not wholly valid unless it adheres to a form that is completely and precisely adequate to it, with nothing in the one exceeding anything in the other. And the gradual realization of this fact is what led to the extraordinary Sun in an Empty Room, of 1963. It is just that: the sun, entering from a window at the right, slants down toward the left across planes of wall; these move upward obliquely from either corner in the manner which, as we have seen, Hopper learned from Degas, crossing the flat areas of sun. And that’s all; there is not even one of Hopper’s disenchanted nudes to try to bring a degree of life to the scene. But just as the light crosses and interlocks with the dark areas, creating a dialectic of forms, so the absence of any actor involves a complementary dialectic in the content. This emptiness is not only the height of desolation that overcomes Hopper’s people when they confront the actualities of life and bleakly see that there is nothing. It also abolishes that desolation, since this empty, unpeopled space is after all—like the Pennsylvania coal town that history bypassed and then forgot, or like the gas station by the road, with the attendant holding the hose at one of the pumps but without a car—the only kind of space that does not involve responsibility and can be free.

In this way, one of the principal subjects of Hopper’s paintings is seen to be what they do not depict but in a way contain. By its disuse or dereliction the motif implies the rest, which means that in effect the visual facts imply questions of emotional value, since the fact that the Pennsylvania coal town is forgotten is only half the experience of the painting. The other half is the attractiveness of everything that has passed it by and left it forlorn, and of course the image for depicting this promised land has to be an image of absence. So that finally the question is whether fulfillment is absent from an image of longing. One sees how much one gives up with satisfaction, and one settles in an equipoise between satisfaction and desire in which one wants principally to keep wanting. In this way, opposites become complementaries, and the subject of an image is not one term or the other of its condition, but a single dialectic in which they mesh. It is a condition of the greatest romanticism and nostalgia, certainly, but in Hopper it is stated with the utmost economy and intellectual austerity of form, and the form is the statement; for although Sun in an Empty Room is a highly symbolic picture it yet contains nothing that can be called a symbol, whether object or person, except the room and the light, and these are the sine qua non of the design. This is basically the process by which any and all art makes its statement as it is the subject of that statement, and I think the painting can be taken as a measure of the ambitiousness, the purity and the success of Hopper’s art at its best, and by the same token of the extent by which it transcends the American or any other scene.

Jerrold Lanes



* I am grateful for the chance to thank Lawrence Steefel, Jr. who encouraged me, read my manuscript, criticized it for me, and generally has been able to see what I wanted to say before I myself quite knew what it was.