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:
TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.
Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2009 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.