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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 4 DECEMBER 2012 — The Grand Palais in Paris is currently hosting a magnificent exhibition of the works of Edward Hopper, one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century. Although many critics have tried to do so, his paintings, luminous, classical, and electrifying although frequently full of foreboding, cannot be explained, the most pertinent comment coming from Hopper himself. "They are all about me", he was wont to say. In a documentary shown on French television, Hopper was shown quoting Goethe who said that "the beginning and end of all literary activity was the reproduction of the world surrounding him by means of the world that was in him reconstructed in a personal form and original manner", words he considered applied to his own work. What is certainly true is that Hopper reshaped painting in the United States, his works not only inspiring film directors from Hitchcock to Wim Wenders, but also being reproduced in posters, post cards, and book covers, thus contributing greatly to a certain image of America still present in Europe today.

Nighthawks, one of the masterpieces of the 1940’s, the painting which inspired Hemmingway’s short story, The Killers, is one of Hopper’s  best known works. Three shady customers sit in a harshly lit café at night waiting, maybe, for the barman to simply reheat their coffee, the lighting bathing the pavement outside in an eerie, greenish glare. Although nothing is happening, and while the artist himself declared that it was simply inspired by a restaurant he saw one night, legend has it that it is the moment before the gangsters storm into the picture.

Edward Hopper (1882–1967): Nighthawks, 1942
Friends of American Art Collection, 1942.51
The Art Institute of Chicago
Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago

The first part of the exhibition covers Hopper’s little-known formative years, from the time he entered Robert Henri’s studio in New York at the age of 18, to his three visits to Paris, a city he loved, in 1906, 1909, and 1910. Fluent in French, he read the poems of Rimbaud and Verlaine, spending time strolling along the banks of the Seine and absorbing the atmosphere of the small clubs, cafés and bars as well as becoming a familiar figure in the countless museums and galleries around. He observed the play of light on walls, buildings, rivers and streets, particularly those devoid of people. It was, he explained, sunlight on the side of a house that interested him more than people.

 His early works have been hung alongside the canvases of French painters such as Edgar Degas, one of the painters whose works certainly influenced him, although he was later to deny this. What is true is that Hopper was constantly surprised by Degas’ unusual framings and viewpoints, and fascinated by his recurrent use of verticals cutting across figures. He particularly admired the psychological tension emanating from the orchestra in Le ballet de Robert le Diable, where the musicians were separated from the stage by an abrupt horizontal line.

However, in these early years when he did not sell a painting, believing the U.S. to be crude and insensible to art, Hopper earned his living doing commercial illustrations, an activity he later said never interested him and his career as we know it did not take off until 1924.

An exhibition of his watercolours, after time spent in New England, finally brought him recognition and the commercial success which heralded a superb mature period. Studies of boats and seaside villages he’d loved as a child paved the way to explorations of houses which he infused with psychological identities. The monumental Lighthouse Hill, completed in 1927, one of his works to interest Alfred Hitchcock, solitary figures of women in various stages of dress and undress often sunk in thought, as in Morning Sun, and images of city life, as in Nighthawks are amongst some of his more famous works. 

Edward Hopper (1882–19677): Hotel Room, 1931
Oil on canvas 152.4 x 165.7 cm
© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

But it is difficult to know whether or not Hopper disdained people in general, for although he came from a wealthy background, he was too tall, (1m 80 at twelve years old), too introverted and too shy, a melancholic child who turned to books to escape the outside world, and this early loneliness is a theme that runs through his work. He seemed obsessed with the isolation of the individual for all the figures in his paintings seem weary of life. Often shown gazing emptily into the horizon, it is unclear whether they are waiting for something to begin or to end.

In Hotel Room, 1931, a woman is sitting on the edge of the bed in an anonymous hotel room, head hanging, ostensibly reading. She’s lit by a ceiling lamp, and surrounded by realistic details; her hat is on a chest of drawers, her coat is slung across the armchair, her shoes and suitcase are on the floor. Has she just arrived or is she about to leave? As in all his paintings after his marriage, the model here is his wife, Jo, and she is pictured in an in-between moment, a state of limbo. She’s one of Hopper’s women, portrayed in a state of waiting, either material or spiritual, hoping for something.

In Chop Suey, 1929, the two women are dressed, but dressed identically. The woman facing us resembles Jo, but eerily, the woman opposite her is her double. They are drinking tea at a table in a Chinese restaurant, but are they there to pick up men? Whatever, there is no pleasure here, the strange atmosphere of the painting being enhanced by the skillful interplay of diagonals, verticals and light and dark areas. The canvas, a masterpiece, is in striking contrast to some of Hopper’s more banal landscapes.

Edward Hopper (1882–19677): Chop Suey, 1929
Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth

Gas, 1940, is not banal at all. In this powerful work, nature is dark, black and forbidding. Night is falling and the fear of the traveler on a lonely Cape Cod road is immediately brought to mind. There is the immensity of the countryside behind the artificial lights of an imaginary garage and the contrast between the darkness and the garish red of the petrol pump where a single garage hand is replacing the pump brings shivers to one’s spine. There is no car to be seen.

Edward Hopper (1882–19677): Gas, 1940
Oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 40 1/4" (66.7 x 102.2 cm)
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
© The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Whether death is lurking in this painting might be debatable, but there can be little doubt about the outcome of People in the Sun completed some 20 years later, where a miscellaneous group of people dressed in city clothes are sunbathing on a terrace in the desert. Yet again, they seem to be waiting for something to happen. It is the ambiguity which creates the intriguing atmosphere where the picture seems to want to tell a story, which is certainly the case with Office at Night, 1940. In this outstanding work, a man and his secretary are working late at the office. But why is the secretary so provocative in her clinging dress which leaves little to the imagination while he is concentrating hard on his work and deliberately trying to ignore her? Definite erotic tension comes from the contrast of her obvious sexuality and the apparent indifference of the man. But, as Hopper himself said, the idea for the painting came from riding on the overhead subway at night where he got glimpses of office interiors.

Edward Hopper (1882–19677): Office at Night, 1940
Oil on canvas, 22.1875 x 25.125 x inches
Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, Gilbert M. Walker Fund, 1948
© Walker Art Center

His comment that his paintings were him lies close to the truth. When one sees the man on film, he seems very much like his work, deadpan, empty and without enthusiasm. He seems to take no pleasure in life, painting being merely an intellectual exercise, full of silent, stoic people, with no trace of joy or laughter. There’s sunlight, but no scent of sunshine, people, but none of the warmth of humanity. The admiration one feels upon leaving this exhibition is perhaps less for the genius of this artist whose works are scarcely uplifting, and more for the excellence and scope of the presentation, the first of its kind in France. Indeed, almost 130 of Hopper’s works have been brought together by the Grand Palais and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid in partnership with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a remarkable achievement.

Edward Hopper
Through 28 January 2013
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 44 13 17 17

Headline image: Edward Hopper: Morning Sun, 1952
Oil on canvas, 71,44 x 101,93 cm.
Howald Fund, 1954
© Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on The Seductions of the Palate exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

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