Edward Hopper is a central figure of 20th century art. During his career in New York or Paris, Hopper discovers the works of American and European artists that will inspire him. At the same time, his work will also be a source of inspiration to many contemporaneous artists, photographers and film-directors, such as the British film-maker Alfred Hitchcock. Moreover, Hopper’s paintings reveal the importance of a definition and a representation of what is American, and how to reflect a certain reality of American society. In many ways, indeed, Hopper’s paintings depict the American society and its construction.
Edward Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, USA, and died in 1967 in New-York. He was interested by art very young, and then went to New York in the New York School of Art, where he meets the artist and professor Robert Henri who will influence his art. Success finally arrived in 1923 when Hopper sells his first canvas to a public institution. The success increased and the website Artlist saw in him
“l’essence même du style américain: honnête, virile et austère”.
En 1933, an exhibition of his work was organized at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art of New-York).
Jérôme Charyn, the author of dark American novels, interviewed on the radio France Culture, depicts a feeling of loneliness and poetry in Hopper’s paintings. The society of individualism of this period is perhaps displayed in his paintings. Hopper was inspired by the evolution of American society and this interest is reflected in his work. For instance, by the representation of rural or urban American landscapes. He was concerned with the authenticity and realism. The artist paints scenes of American lifestyles and captures moments of American society, just like a photograph would do. Actually, Hopper was into photography for some time, but he quickly gave it up to focus on painting. His paintings illustrate a kind of a nation, with its fashions, customs, landscapes and way of life. He was also inspired by his own experiences of life, by his love story with his wife Joséphine, and by the places he lived in – New York or Paris.
Hopper stayed in France several times – a year in 1906, and then in 1909 and 1910 – but most of his masterpieces were made in New York. In France, he was inspired by French painters, such as Degas and its specific angles.
He was also influenced by Albert Marquet, Félix Vallotton and Walter Sickert. Hence, he was trained to the French style and the technique of impressionism.
For instance, a painting with a French title, Soir Bleu – 1914, oil on canvas – was realized in Paris, and Rue89 introduces it on its website with comments by Didier Ottinger, organizer of the exhibition in the Grand Palais, Paris. The canvas is described as being French in the sense that the patterns of the paintings are typical of a Parisian life, such as the prostitute, the bourgeois couple, and the figure of the white clown, which may refer to the Gilles made by Watteau (1718), which was exhibited in the Louvre and which fascinated Hopper. It is also a Parisian scene thanks to the setting, representing the top of Saint-Cloud, a place Hopper used to go. While he was in France, he also realized Louvre in a Thunderstorm (1909) or Stairway at 48, Rue de Lille, Paris (1906), “which shows a new cosmopolitan side to the artist, and the early signs of his obsession with architecture and small urban detail”“. After his stay in Paris, Hopper came back to the USA. However, the American critique did not received well the painting Soir Bleu became considered too French. What the Americans wanted and expected was an American art, that is to say a realist form of art.
Thus, it reflects the importance of an art as being American. The concept of “Americanization” was part of the debate on American identity during a time of massive immigration. This key word appeared in the 19th century, and referred to a “concerted movement to turn immigrants into Americans”. This concern about national identity and citizenship is the reason why I refer to this term in the case of Edward Hopper’s paintings. What is interesting about the time spent by Hopper in France is that it influenced him, although it did not make him French or lose his American identity. He knew that he was a foreigner in another country. In spite of his voyages to France, he remained above all American, and his creations are a reflection of the American identity. France and Europe are in general seen as “old Europe” in American imagery, the place where Americans come from, whereas America represents their reality. In order to be American, Hopper’s paintings has to reflect the reality of America.
The idea of the American nation is the result of a construction, of a narrative. A nation is imagined, and Hopper’s paintings are the result of an imagined nation. This vision comes from his own perception of the American nation. He paints places that reflect a part of America, such as New York and key places that represent American landscapes or scenes of life. By these paintings, and by choosing places or situations instead of others, Edward Hopper creates an imagined nation. For instance, he does not represent the life of lower classes or desert places of the South.
The website of the Grand Palais qualifies Hopper’s paintings as being like an “image d’épinal”, or in other words a popular and stereotyped image of America.
“Chacune d’elles [these images]est un condensé des savoirs hypothétiques, des rêves que nous inspire l’Amérique”.
These images reflect Hopper’s vision of American society and, at the same time, build a certain image of America for the viewers, who are outside or within American society. Hopper’s work becomes a kind of archive of a certain time in America, although his work remains timeless. Like photography, Hopper’s paintings freeze a period of the USA, although they continuously influences the culture and art of today in all its forms – cinema, comics, TV series, etc.
Daily life and urbanization
Hopper is interested in the portrayal of daily life scenes or urban scenes and the evolution of urbanization was an important subject for him. His paintings depict a certain kind of house, a certain kind of landscapes or way of life, and thus illustrate an American way of life. Hopper is interested in representing architecture, and for instance the American architecture style, such as in Second Story Sunlight (1960, oil on canvas, 102x127cm). He also portrays scenes of work, as in Office at Night (1940, oil on canvas, 56x64cm), representative of the American bureaucracy, industrialization and business, typical of the capitalist system. For this latter painting, Hopper was inspired by A Cotton Office in New Orleans by Degas in 1873. Everyday life is also represented, such as scenes in restaurants with Chop Suey (1929, oil on canvas, 81x96cm). American landscapes are also drawn in The Camel’s Hump (1931, oil on canvas, 82x127cm). Urbanization and architecture play an important role in Hopper’s work, illustrated for instance in Gloucester Roofs (1928, watercolor, 35x51cm). France 24 interprets “1942’s Nighthawks or 1940’s Gas (1940, on on canvas, 66x102cm), as scenes of urban and rural loneliness which show a dystopian view of mid-20th century America.” The Oxford Dictionaries Online defines “dystopia” as “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. The opposite of utopia.” However, many interpretations can be given of this work. What is obvious is that these paintings of gas stations, American bars or offices feed the imagery of the viewer and give a certain image of the American lifestyle.
Edward Hopper was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet”. The painting depicts a diner at night with four characters. The scene is lit by fluorescent lights that had just come into use in the early 1940s.
In this work, Hopper took inspiration from American novels or paintings. We know he was influenced by the novel The Killers written by Ernest Hemingway. He was also influenced by dark cinema, with their gangsters, detective agents and beautiful heroines in Hollywood films he used to watched during his crisis of inspiration. Furthermore, cinemawas also influenced by him, such as Polanski or Wenders, which shows the interconnections of different art forms. The importance of the narration is universal and Hopper creates a narrative structure inside “Nighthawks” and other paintings. The painter freezes a scene, creates a storyline, and lets the viewer free to interpret and imagine the story. There is also something theatrical in the structure of the painting, and we can imagine Hopper as a film-director who manages actors – the characters. Thus, this scene was reappropriated by film-directors or writers who used it to build a story of their own from the narration of the painting and hence give it a second life.
Hopper himself was inspired by Le café de nuit painted by Van Gogh (1888) and which also portrays a night scene and a bar. Moreover, during his last trip to Europe, Hopper saw in Amsterdam The Night Watch by Rembrandt (1642), which is striking for its homophony with Nighthawks.
Nighthawks is a symbol of the American culture and in fact this diner at night will influence other fictions in cinema, comics, TV series or novels. For instance, when writing the word Nighthawks on Google image, parodies of the famous painting appear, which testify to its popularity in people’s imagination. The popular TV series The Simpson and the image of a bar of astronauts on the Internet prove the continuity in time of the masterpiece until today.
The term “Americanization” serves to refer to the influence of America on foreigner cultures. Hopper’s paintings and the way he framed scenes of life, as well as their particular esthetics and atmosphere, influenced and continue to influence other artists. As an illustration, the scene painted in Room in New York, 1932, inspired Hitchcock in Rear Window (1954). Moreover, House by the Railroad, 1925, representing a house of a second empire American style, will inspire the scary house of Psycho (1960).
Hopper is still a reference today, which shows the persistence of his popularity and importance. Edward Hopper’s interpretation of American society portrays of a certain American lifestyle. He depicts scenes of daily life and American landscapes that belong to the American society. At the same time, the painter created a subjective perception of the American society, and his paintings may reflect his loneliness or a nostalgia of the American dream. His creations have become part of the American culture shared by Americans but also by outsiders, like Europeans. His works have become symbols of the American society during Hopper’s life. Seventy years later, his paintings are not only a reflection of the past but of the present that we can see in literature, TV series and cinema. The success of his paintings all around the world, as the exhibition in Paris at the Grand Palais (October 2012 – January 2013), are testimonies of this popularity.