Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was a rather prolific painter and draftsmen. The exhibition of Hopper’s life’s works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. unfolds with a series of etchings completed during the early years of the artist’s career. Hopper, who is primarily regarded as an oil painter and watercolorist, was actually a rather inclined printmaker.
The artist turned to etching around 1915 after returning to New York from several excursions in Europe where he became heavily influenced by the prints of Rembrandt and Goya. Etching proved economical and Hopper (who worked as a commercial illustrator) sought refuge in the medium. Prints such as “East Side Interior” 1922, and “Evening Wind” 1921 demonstrate the artist’s capability in successfully depicting light and shadow. In both etchings, the female is nude, her face obscured from view. “Night on the El Train” 1921 is a less successful print, but a far more successful narrative. An elusive couple converses quietly and covertly with each other, coupling in the deepest corner of the night train. For the first time one tries (though in vain) to conjure a narrative in an attempt to absolve the thick sexual tension present in the etching. In prints such as “Night Shadows” done during the same year, one is not nearly as concerned with the figures as they are the architecture.
Hopper’s paintings prior to his prints are far less successful than those created from the mid 1920s on. An example from 1908 is an oil painting titled “Railroad Train.” The painting is rather monochromatic, lacking contrast and value. It is thickly painted- an earnest attempt at oil, but poorly executed and “muddy.” His interest in technology and the landscape is however apparent at a rather early point in the artist’s career. The successful jump from drawing to painting was made through the vehicle of watercolor. The medium provided the perfect synthesis of drawing and painting. At last Hopper was able to refine his hand while training his eye to distinguish color and tone.
Hopper’s watercolors are some of the best I have seen. They are crisp and clean with a strong sense of clarity. Light and shadow dominate the paintings, though color is certainly not ignored. The color Hopper uses in his watercolor landscapes and depictions of architecture is rather true to life and limited in regard to the palette. It is far less indulged than the hearty jewel tones present in the artist’s mature work. In works such as ‘Houses of Squam Light, Gloucester” 1923 and “Light, Two Lights” 1927, the figures are absent and the architecture dominates. Hopper’s preoccupation with technology and construction in the landscape is prevalent in his watercolors as well as his oil paintings. Though Hopper maintained similar interests throughout his career, he never stopped learning or allowing the learning process to show though in his work. It is clear that his etchings influenced his watercolors (a medium that lends itself to drawing) and even more obvious that his watercolors strongly influenced his oil paintings which had previously faltered.
Instead of painting everything thickly and clumsily as in “Railroad Train” Hopper began using the canvas as a tool, much like the paper is used in watercolor. “Sunday” 1926 illustrates the artist’s new handling of the medium. Hopper uses his knife (or rag) to scrape the paint away from the surface of the painting where shadows lie and build impasto in areas of interest. The canvas bleeds through the dark windows of the storefront, illuminating them with “sunlight.” The figure is built with thicker, impasto paint. Once clumsy and unasserted, the artist now claims his tool and uses it to successfully build an environment while guiding the eye throughout the composition.
The mature work of the artist, including some of his most famous paintings “NightHawks”1942 and “Chop Suey” 1929 is more concerned with narrative and thematic interpretations. The theme “isolation” is prevalent throughout. The two women present in “Chop Suey” hardly converse or even look at one another, though they are positioned with such inclination. Sitting across from one another in a Chinese restaurant, the women appear isolated, the environment quiet and still (a far cry from the busy streets of New York). The paint in “NightHawks” is more successful than in previous works. The acidic yellow fluorescent light pervades the human forms who seem more like mannequins in a store front window than patrons at a diner. The glass window bends effortlessly around a city corner fusing the city streets and the restaurant interior seamlessly.
One finds themselves again searching for narrative in “Office at Night” 1940. The female secretary looks over her shoulder at the office manager reading over documents. The woman’s dress is fitted, showcasing her curvaceous form. The allusion of sexuality is also apparent in “Summertime” 1943 where a blonde haired woman wearing a sheer white dress stands at the base of a stoop. Seemingly innocuous at first glance, the sexualizing of women is rendered all the more insidious. Whether Hopper was commenting on societal structures, I do not know. It is evident however, that he was at least toying with the idea.
Though narrative is prevent in Hopper’s mature work, it is the palette I found most interesting. What makes his paintings so clear and decisive is the use of a very limited palette. I found that in any given painting, on average the artist used three or fewer colors. They were quite identifiable and hardly varied from their original form. “Morning Sun”1963 is Viridian, Ochre and Cadmium Red. “Sun in an Empty Room” from the same year is simply viridian and ochre. In his most successful paintings, Hopper uses at most four color choices. This was a logical and economical decision on behalf of the artist. Hopper’s use of a limited palette stems from his background as a draftsman whose only color choices were the black of the ink and the white of paper. It seems that when the artist employs the use of too many colors in his paintings they lose the quietness and stillness that has rendered them iconic. It is the decisive manner in which Hopper decides to depict form that is so ingenious and well thought. Hopper’s paintings and etchings have long been regarded as enigmatic, elusive, and covert. Narrative and theme are only alluded at. Perhaps what makes Hopper’s work so dynamic is not the theme or the narrative. Perhaps it’s just the paint.