Edward Hopper has to be one of my all time favorite artists. The current exhibition at the Boston MFA is fantastic. In addition to what is arguably his most famous painting (Nighthawks, 1942), the museum hosts some of his very early works and some of his prints. Hopper was admired as a printmaker before he became known as a painter.
I was struck by the obvious maturation of Hopper's work. In music, we speak of the "mature style" and I sometimes feel this is unfair, as maturity, in both music and life, is a subjective concept. However, in spite of the subjectivity, we can usually agree that self-confidence is a sign of maturation. In Hopper's early work there is a sense that he is following a model, a pattern...he's painting how he is supposed to paint. As one moves into his works of the later twenties, he seems less afraid to admit shape...using watercolors almost as if they were oils, exploiting their capabilities for the opaque. In these paintings, the natural elements (such as background foliage) are given a more watery texture, whereas the solidity of man-made elements is emphasized.
I respect Hopper's eye. He isn't afraid to let tall edifices soar out of frame. While Uncle Jack's snapshots of the Eiffel Tower without its top don't quite cut it, Hopper manages to extend the idea beyond the page. We don't have to see all of the chimney in order to understand the roof.
The exhibit cited Hopper's interest in "vernacular architecture" as opposed to someone like Charles Sheeler, who, while somewhat similar stylistically, amplified the industrial (factories and the like). His paintings of lighthouses are especially exquisite...extraordinary, but not overly-romanticized.
Hopper's most intriguing paintings are those of women and couples (see Room in New York, 1932 pictured above). The sense of isolation is tangible, but not hopeless. In his famous New York Movie (1939), the usherette becomes the focus, not the movie or even those watching. Dimly illuminated by the aisle lights, we are pulled into her pensive daydreaming...the movie in her mind.
The very last painting in the exhibition chilled me for some reason...all the more ironic given that it is a painting of sunlight. Sun in an Empty Room, painted four years before he died, gave me such pause. Gone are the contemplative nudes and the estranged couples...only two elements remain...the room and light. There is a strong sense of geometry here. The three-dimensionality is subdued in favor of the demarcation of roles: shadow vs. light. The absent figures could occupy either type of space. It makes me want to seek out all of Hopper's figures to note where they stand, sit, or lounge. In the end, when we leave our rooms, the light and shadow remain. We are but visitors, with our hopes, dreams and burdens.