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Edward Hopper: The Paris Years
February 22 - June 1, 2003
Edward Hopper was the J.D. Salinger of American painters, an extremely private man who granted few interviews. Much of what scholars know about his work comes from his wife Jo Nivison-Hopper's journals. Edward Hopper: The Paris Years, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art of New York, provides a tantalizing look at the early work of one of America's best known figurative painters. The exhibition of 45 paintings and 10 works on paper opens at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Art on February 22 and runs through June 1, 2003. (left: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Steps in Paris, 1906, oil on wood, 13 x 9 3/16 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from a 1970 bequest from Josephine N. Hopper)
Hopper said little about even his most accomplished paintings, believing the work should speak for itself. Scholars have been left to speculate on influences on his career, from his realist art instructors Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase and Kenneth Hayes Miller at the New York School of Art to the psychological reaction of a young man raised in a small town coming to grips with isolation and loss of community in the urban modern age that was New York City at the turn of the century. The answer may be found in Paris, in verse rather than on canvas. (right: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Notre Dame, No. 2, 1907, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 28 3/4 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from a 1970 bequest from Josephine N. Hopper)
Edward Hopper's early talent for drawing and painting was encouraged by his mother Elizabeth. The family's middle class concern for his future financial security influenced Edward to attend The New York School of Illustrating before transferring to the New York School of Art. Hopper would work more than fifteen years as a commercial illustrator, work that he despised. His skill at painting watercolors, however, is attributed to the years spent as an illustrator. He was able to master strokes with the brush and had a remarkable eye for being able to adjust a composition to where it would have the most immediate and dramatic impact on the viewer.
After six years of study at the New York School of Art, Hopper left for France in October, 1906. His Paris studies coincided with an exciting era in the history of the Modern movement. Hopper, however, was untouched by Fauvist and Cubist art popular at the time, continuing instead to follow his own artistic course. (left: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Le Pont des Arts, 1907, oil on canvas, 23 7/16 x 28 3/4 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from a 1970 bequest from Josephine N. Hopper)
"I've heard of Gertrude Stein, but I don't remember having heard of Picasso at all," stated Hopper. "Paris had no great or immediate impact on me." Then again, Hopper later admits, "America seemed awfully crude and raw when I got back. It took me ten years to get over Europe."
In Europe, Hopper also visited London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels and Spain. The painting that left the greatest impression on him was Rembrandt's The Night Watch as did the work of painters Diego Velasquez, Francisco de Goya, Honore Daumier and Edouard Manet. (right: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Le Bistro or The Wine Shop, 1909, oil on canvas, 23 3/8 x 28 1/2 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from a 1970 bequest from Josephine N. Hopper)
Hopper's palette in Paris brightened considerably from the previous sober New York paintings as seen in Le Quai des Grands Augustins (1909) and Le Pavillon de Flore (1909). In a few examples, such as Gateway and Fence (1907) and Le Parc de Saint Cloud (1907), he employs Impressionist techniques. He remained committed to realism and exhibited some of the basic characteristics that he was to retain throughout his career: compositional style based on simple, large geometric forms, flat masses of color and the use of architectural elements in his scenes for their strong verticals, horizontals and diagonals. Hopper's early Paris work favored the depiction of small streets (Rivers and Buildings, 1907), architectural elements (Steps in Paris, 1906) and interiors (Stairway at 48 rue de Lille, Paris, 1906).
While Modern painting failed to impress the young American, the "poet of modern civilization" did. Hopper discovered the poetry and critical writing of Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (1821 - 1867) whose formulation of his aesthetic theory served as the inspiration for the Symbolist movement away from painting by observation to an expression of more subjective intellectual and emotional visions. Hopper was to read and recite Baudelaire's work throughout his life. The two men shared interests in solitude, in city life, in modernity, in the solace of the night and in places of travel. (left: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Le Pavillon de Flore, 1909, oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from a 1970 bequest from Josephine N. Hopper)
Baudelaire's feelings for Paris, for the teeming modern city and his compassion for the failures and outcasts in its streets expressed in Le Spleen de Paris, is a forerunner to Hopper's dominant theme of disconnect in 20th century America. Hopper's figures in his mature work seem far from home, they sit or stand alone, looking at a letter on the edge of a hotel bed or drinking alone in a bar or gazing out the window of a moving train. Their faces are vulnerable and introspective, adrift in transient places.
Hopper's personality was perfectly suited to the paintings he produced. His realistic depictions of everyday urban scenes allowed viewers to identify with the images and situation in a personal manner. His emphasis on blunt shapes and angles and the stark play of light and shadow had the power to shock viewers into recognition of the strangeness of familiar surroundings. (right: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Le Quai des Grands Augustins, 1909, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from a 1970 bequest from Josephine N. Hopper)
Edward Hopper was 43 years old before painting what is generally acknowledged to be his first fully mature picture, The House by the Railroad, in 1925. His deliberate, disciplined spareness combined apparently incompatible qualities.
"Modern in bleakness and simplicity, his Parisian
was nostalgic in his fondness for 19th century architecture," noted
Mint Museum curator Michael Whittington. "While his compositions are
realist, they make frequent use of covert symbolism."
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