Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 17, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:


Edward Hopper's Impressionism

by Brett Busang



Edward Hopper's plein air painting is not particularly well-known today. It is dismissed, with some justice, as a kind of adolescent phase -- a necessary detour in a journey whose bumps and milestones are as much a part of our national iconography as Coca Cola. Though he always referred to his particular means of gathering material as working before "the fact", his artistic process would evolve beyond that of merely recording a specific time of day, a fleeting sensation, or a building or monument that appealed to him. Yet he never relinquished the practice of working before "the fact", as we see in his watercolors. This more uncomplicated phase of his creative life gave him, ironically enough, his first taste of success. (There were no oil paintings in his first one-man show -- which sold out. At the age of forty-two, he had arrived.)

By the turn of the last century, when Hopper was enrolled, under the tutelage of Robert Henri, at the New York School of Art, Impressionism had won its major battles and was well-established in international art circles. Every European nation had its Impressionist "school"; in Germany, there was Max Lieberman; in Sweden, P. S. Kroyer and Anders Zorn; in England, the Newlyn School, with its square-brush naturalism, squared off against the Camden Town group led by Walter Sickert. Russian Impressionism was embodied in the persons of Valentin Serov, the dashing intimist/portrait painter; and in the profoundly spiritual imagery of Isaac Levitan, who died fairly young, and at the peak of his creative powers. The French Impressionists are, of course, synonymous with the word itself and hardly bear mentioning. Yet there were offshoots as far away as Australia and Japan. Despised by boulevard wits and retardaire academics of the Second Empire, Impressionism had penetrated to the far corners of the world.

When Hopper was a student at the New York School of Art, Impressionism was being reinvented by Americans who'd been abroad and were eager to try it out at home. Childe Hassam had taken it to the parks and boulevards, finding a peculiarly American voice heavily dependent, however, on French antecedents. William Merritt Chase made excellent use of its core tenets and gave it a kind of urban sensibility muted somewhat by gentile subjects. He could give you a pile of rusted munitions and strew them along an embankment totally bereft of worldly comforts. He was, however, in his true element with the parasols and boating parties of the Manhattan-to-Newport set. (He should also be credited with single-handedly reviving pastel painting as a serious artistic medium.) Chase would have a hand at teaching Hopper, but Robert Henri's humanist philosophy and rough-and-tumble technique made more sense, and would ultimately become his own.

Henri, as well as most of his colleagues, had had his own flirtation with Impressionism, and joyously passed it along. In addition to his volumes of Goya etchings, Henri brought the latest art journals from around the world to class. Students eager to hear about developments in the wider world feasted on these with a voracity unimaginable -- with so much information readily available ­ today. Keenly curious about French culture - along with most of the Ashcan group -- Hopper sailed to Paris during these impressionable years; stayed in small hotels; avoided bohemia; and painted the city in a way that strikes us as somewhat conventional today, given the stark and uncompromising imagery of his later years. Yet because this work is overshadowed by his more iconic imagery, it is often given short shrift. In actuality, Hopper took the Impressionist vocabulary of scientifically accurate color observed in direct sunlight and, in a short period of time, created a small, but significant, body of work that was not only the gateway to a more personal vision, but might easily share the spotlight with Parisian artists of the same period. Hopper's work introduces, to a small extent, a certain American energy that sets it apart from the work Pissarro was doing from various hotel windows in the city. Pissarro's earthy-colored views of hansom cabs and crowded intersections show an aging master flourishing still, but with an abbreviated intensity. The young Hopper is easily at odds with Renoir's feathery voluptuousness as well as the Monet of the Japanese foot-bridge, garden, and water-lily. These conquering heroes of Impressionism were all -- with Monet as a brilliant exception -- in the twilight of their careers and had lost some of the vitality of the hard-going, but effervescent 1870's and 80's.

Personal idiosyncrasies are already apparent: Soir Blue, an enormous canvas by early Hopper standards, provides an introduction to the feckless and alienated people in Nighthawks, as well as lesser-known canvases such as The Automat and Sunlight in a Cafeteria. Soir Blue, however, is also akin to Degas in its absinthe-drenched despair and suggests an acquaintance with the older artist's work. Hopper's design -- which would anchor static elements to a largely rectilinear design -- begins to emerge along the embankment of the Seine -- which was responsible for a series of light-filled canvases; and, to a perhaps lesser degree, in Trees at Charenton. His life-long fascination with the monumental as it plays itself out in a natural setting begins to emerge in Acqueduct. Whereas Monet and even Sisley were essentially after the fugitive effects of light, Hopper's light is already of a different character: here is a light that not only articulates form, but has a sort of material presence. Hopper was never comfortable with the broken color and sun-ragged forms of French Impressionism. He was, even in his student years, already searching -- as he would later admit -- "for himself." A different sort of journey is implied here: one that is dependent, but also rejects, a strict reliance on optical truth. The original Impressionists were largely sensual in their relationship to the world. They celebrated the mundanely simple in a way that diverged from the leaf-counting academism of the Salon, but was ultimately rather limiting. If Monet -- as an cautiously admiring Courbet would aver -- was "just an eye", Hopper was a physical force that had not yet found an appropriate vehicle.

Yet Hopper's commitment to Impressionism was very real, if short-lived. In one's student years, it is necessary to absorb, and then reflect for a short time, the cross-currents of history and fashion that are part of any standard curriculum. Hopper's choice of Impressionism was a felicitous one. It suited him technically, in its broad and slashing approach -- which he would later temper -- but also in its adherence to physical reality ("the fact"), by which Hopper would later set so much store: and for which we celebrate him today.

About the Author

Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC. His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard" with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday. He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.


Resource Library editor's note

Resource Library readers may also enjoy

on the Web:

For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Edward Hopper. The iconic paintings and artistic impact of Edward Hopper (1882-1967) are the topics for a 30-minute 2007 documentary DVD accompanying the exhibition Edward Hopper on its national tour. Narrated by the award-winning actor, writer, and Hopper art collector Steve Martin and produced by the National Gallery of Art, the film will accompany the exhibition in all three venues: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (May 6 through August 19, 2007); the National Gallery of Art, Washington (September 16 through January 21, 2008); and The Art Institute of Chicago (February 16 through May 11, 2008). At the National Gallery, the film will be shown in its entirety in the East Building auditoriums, dates to be announced. A 15-minute version of the film will be shown continuously in a theater inside the exhibition. The documentary includes archival footage of Hopper, new footage of places that inspired him in New York and New England, including his boyhood home in Nyack and his studio on Washington Square, where he lived and worked for more than 50 years. From their New York studios, artists Red Grooms and Eric Fischl discuss Hopper's influence on their careers. Co-curators of the exhibition -- Carol Troyen, John Moors Cabot Curator of American Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Judith Barter, The Field-McCormick Chair of American Art at The Art Institute of Chicago -- as well as independent scholar Avis Berman, author of Hopper's New York, discuss recent and diverse perspectives on Hopper's art. Hopper's passion for the movies, particularly film noir classics from the 1930s such as The Public Enemy , is revealed in the film, which also shows the influence of Hopper's work on the set designs of filmmakers who came after him, including Alfred Hitchcock and Wim Wenders.
Edward Hopper: The Silent Witness. Great American realist painter Edward Hopper emerges In this thoughtful 43 minute docudrama. It traces his steps along the Eastern seaboard using his works, from museums like the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago and MOMA, as clues to his Itinerary. "Dramatizes the life of American painter Edward Hopper (1882--1967) in his Cape Cod studio. Shows locations that may have inspired the subjects of his paintings including empty cityscapes and countrysides, the stark light of Cape Cod, silent hills and houses, and themes of alienation and loneliness." Edward Hopper: The Silent Witness is available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.
Hopper's Silence. A documentary on American painter Edward Hopper that brings together rare footage of the artist, a filmed interview, comments by his friends, and his thoughts as expressed in letters to the filmmaker. 1980. 46 min. Video/C MM5. Available from Media Resources Center, Library, University of California, Berkeley.

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