Edward Hopper - Biography and Legacy
New York City
Biography of Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in Nyack, New York, in 1882. His parents introduced Edward, and his older sister Marion, to the arts early in life; they attended the theatre, concerts and other cultural events, and visited museums. His father owned a dry goods store where Hopper sometimes worked as a teen. Hopper described him as "an incipient intellectual... less at home with his books of accounts than with Montaigne's essays." Both his parents were supportive of his artistic inclinations.
As a boy, Hopper was quiet and reserved. He was over six feet tall by his early teens, had few friends, and spent much of his time alone with his books and art. His home in Nyack stood on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, just north of New York City. At the time Nyack was a vibrant hub of transit and industry. There was an active train station, three shipbuilding companies, a port for steamboats, and the cross-Hudson ferry. Young Edward spent his days by the river, sketchpad in hand, observing and drawing the rigging and building of boats. This early period is documented in numerous drawings of boats and ships as well as several handmade wooden model boats. As a teen he built a full-sized catboat and briefly considered pursuing a career in naval architecture. The seriousness with which the artist approached his artistic ambitions had already revealed itself by age 10 when he began to sign and date his drawings.
After graduating high school in 1899, Hopper's parents encouraged him to study commercial illustration instead of fine art. Accordingly, he spent a year at the New York School of Illustration in Manhattan before transferring to the more serious New York School of Art to realize his dream. His teachers there included the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (who founded the school) and Robert Henri, a leading figure of the Ashcan school, whose proponents advocated depicting the grittier side of urban life. Hopper's classmates at the school included George Bellows, Guy Pene du Bois, and Rockwell Kent.
In 1905, Hopper began working as an illustrator for a New York City advertising agency but never really liked illustrating and longed for the freedom to paint from his imagination. Unfortunately, success was slow in coming and he was forced to earn his living as an illustrator for nearly 20 more years until his painting career took off.
Hopper travelled to Europe three times between 1906 and 1910, enjoying two extended stays in Paris. The influence of the Impressionists led him to the streets to draw and paint en plein air, or, as Hopper described it, "from the fact." Years later he would call his work from this period, a form of "modified impressionism." He was especially attracted to Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas's unusual compositional arrangements in their depictions of modern urban life. During a visit to Amsterdam, Hopper also admired Rembrandt's Nightwatch, which called "the most wonderful thing of his I have seen, it's past belief in its reality - it almost amounts to deception."
After returning from his final trip abroad in 1910, Hopper moved permanently to New York City and, in 1913, settled at 3 Washington Square North. This would be his home and studio for the rest of his life. That same year he sold his first painting, Sailing (1911), for $250 at the Armory show in New York. Though he never stopped painting, it would be 11 years before he sold another painting. During that time he continued to earn his living illustrating and, in 1915, he took up printmaking, producing some 70 etchings and dry points over the next decade. Like the paintings for which he would later become renowned, Hopper's etchings embody a sense alienation and melancholy. One of his better known etchings, Night Shadows (1921) features the birds'-eye viewpoint, the dramatic use of light and shadow, and the air of mystery which would serve as inspiration for many film noir movies of the 1940s. Hopper continued to receive great acclaim for his etchings over the years and considered them an essential part of his artistic development. As he wrote, "After I took up etching, my painting seemed to crystallize."
In 1923, Hopper visited Gloucester, Massachusetts. There he became reacquainted with Josephine (Jo) Nivison, whom he had met years earlier as an art student of Robert Henri. He worked in watercolor that summer and it was Jo who encouraged him later that year to join her in participating in a show at the Brooklyn Museum. He exhibited six watercolors there, including The Mansard Roof (1923), which the museum purchased for $100.
In 1924, Hopper married Jo. From that time on she became his primary model and most ardent supporter. In that same year he had a solo exhibition of watercolors at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery in New York. The show sold out and the Rehn Gallery continued to represent him for the rest of his life. This success enabled Hopper to finally give up illustrating.
Over the next several years, Hopper's painting style matured and his signature iconography emerged--from isolated figures in public or private interiors, to sun-soaked architecture, silent streets, and coastal scenes with lighthouses. In 1930, House by the Railroad (1925) became the first painting accessioned to the permanent collection of the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. The early 1930s were, indeed, a period of great success for Hopper, with sales to major museums and in 1933, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Despite his commercial success, Hopper and Jo lived a frugal lifestyle, only allowing themselves the indulgence of attending theatre and films. Hopper particularly loved going to movies. His first documented visit to one was in Paris in 1909. As he explained, "When I don't feel in the mood for painting, I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge."
Early in their marriage the Hoppers spent summers painting in New England, mostly Gloucester and coastal Maine. They also travelled across the country and to Mexico, where they painted watercolors side by side. From 1934, they began spending summers at the house and studio Hopper designed for them in South Truro, Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Hopper continued to be productive during the war years and remained unperturbed by the potential threats following the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was precisely during this period that he worked on his most well known painting, Nighthawks (1942). Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Hopper continued to see acclaim and success, despite the arrival of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism to the New York art scene. The universal appeal of his subjects continued to find an avid audience.
Hopper was not a prolific painter. He often found it hard to settle on a subject to paint and then spent a great deal of time working out the details of the composition through numerous studies. By the end of his life he averaged just two oils a year. Hopper died on May 15, 1967 and Jo Hopper died just 10 months later, bequeathing their artistic estate to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Hopper is buried, along with Jo, his sister and his parents, in Nyack's Oak Hill Cemetery.
The Legacy of Edward Hopper
Hopper has inspired countless painters, photographers, filmmakers, set designers, dancers, writers, and musicians and the term "Hopperesque" is now widely used to connote images reminiscent of Hopper's moods and subjects. In the visual arts, Hopper's influence has touched artists in a range of media including Mark Rothko, George Segal, Banksy, Ed Ruscha, and Tony Oursler. The painter Eric Fischl remarked, "You can tell how great an artist is by how long it takes you to get through his territory...I'm still in the territory that he opened up." Richard Diebenkorn recalled the importance of Hopper's influence on his work when he was a student stating, "I embraced Hopper completely ... It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere ... kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity ... It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine." In the exhibition and catalogue, Edward Hopper & Company: Hopper's Influence on Photography (2009), Jeffrey Fraenkel examines how Edward Hopper inspired a whole school of photographers including Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Stephen Shore. Fraenkel writes, "More than almost any American artist, Hopper has had a pervasive impact on the way we see the world--so pervasive as to be almost invisible."
Hopper has had no less of an impact on cinema. Generations of filmmakers have drawn inspiration from Hopper's dramatic viewpoints, lighting, and overall moods, among them, Sam Mendes, David Lynch, Robert Siodmak, Orson Welles, Wim Wenders, and Billy Wilder. His painting, House by the Railroad (1925) inspired Alfred Hitchcock's house in Psycho (1960) as well as that in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978).
Hopper's open-ended narratives have also appealed to writers and musicians. Tom Waits titled an album Nighthawks at the Diner and Madonna named a concert tour after the painting Girlie Show (1941). Joyce Carol Oates refers directly to Hopper in her poem, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks 1942. Many others have created whole collections of stories or poems using Hopper paintings as starting points. Hopper's Nighthawks has been appropriated and used hundreds of times in all forms of media within popular culture. An image of the painting or a facsimile of it can be found in an episode of the Simpsons, as the backdrop for a Peeps marshmallows ad, or featuring Marilyn Monroe and James Dean (in Gottfried Helnwein's Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1984)), morphed into a Starbucks, a space station, and in a variety of cartoons in The New Yorker.
The artist and writer Victor Burgin properly summed up Hopper's pervasive impact when he said, "We need not look for Hopper in order to find him. We may encounter him by chance at random places where his world intersects our own. We might ask whether or not this photograph by the American documentary photographer Larry Sultan was taken with Edward Hopper's paintings consciously in mind. But the question is irrelevant. To know Hopper's work is to be predisposed to see the world in his terms, consciously or not."