Hopper, Edward, The City, 1927Gift of C. Leonard PfeifferOil on canvas, 27 1/2″ x 37″
Edward Hopper is known for his iconic imagery of modern twentieth century America, such as the timeless masterpiece, Night Hawks (1942). He was considered one of the foremost realist painters of the twentieth century, inspired by the nineteenth-century Realist painter, Thomas Eakins. Hopper’s paintings of ordinary places such as the corner drugstore, apartment buildings, houses, and street corners all convey a sense of enduring mystery and yet familiarity.
His paintings are not specific to places, but were ‘types’- all carefully constructed compositions that were unpacked to their bare essentials, and then re-packed with emotional intensity through dramatic use of light, shadow, strong diagonals and unusual perspectives. These visual qualities he borrowed from French painters like the nineteenth century Impressionist Degas and Monet whom he was inspired by while studying in Paris in 1906.
The biggest influence to his work would be the father of American Realism, Robert Henri, his instructor at the New York School of Art who encouraged his students to depict scenes of urban life. Hopper’s painting, The City, could be in any major urban city, and like most of his images, captures a sense of isolation or loneliness about the city. The city landscape seems almost abandoned, quiet and empty, or possibly all the inhabitants are asleep?
Hopper was discovered late in life at the age of 42. For twenty years he earned an income by making illustrations for books and magazines, work that he hated due to the strict guidelines and caricatured mannerisms the people in his compositions had to posses. Hopper’s goal was to convey the ‘truth’ of everyday life and knew the challenge was to convey a sense of authenticity in that vision.
Wagstaff, S. Ed. (2004). Edward Hopper. London: Tate Publishing.
The sixty year time span of Edward Hopper’s art career was a time of ever increasing art movements: The Ashcan School, American Scene Painting, Regionalism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. Hopper’s work does not fit neatly into any of these modern art movements of the first half of the twentieth century. The same conditions that propelled artists like Thomas Hart Benton to champion Regionalism, such as the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and The Great Depression all propelled Hopper to reject the movement and its Midwestern imagery.
Benton and other Regionalists looked to the nineteenth century agrarian lifestyles of the Midwest and idealized the people, the place and the values in contrast to the overcrowded, capitalized urban centers of America like New York City. Census reports from 1920 record a major demographic shift in the United States as more Americans than ever before were reported living in urban centers than in rural areas. Hopper, however much he detested his changing New York City landscape, rejected the American Scene Painting or Regionalism label, stating that artists like Benton and Curry “caricatured America”.
Many post WW I artists celebrated New York capturing visually the people, the skyscrapers, bridges, the bright lights and the sounds of the growing international city. The 1920’s was an era of dueling building campaigns in New York as the Chrysler Building surpassed the Eiffel Tower as the tallest man-made building in 1930, and just one year later the Empire State Building surpassed it in height.
Hopper did not wish to celebrate these aspects of the city; rather he captured this changing city landscape through a more pessimistic frame. For example, The City, a view of Washington Square in New York, is a place that was normally bustling with people. But in his image, the square is almost empty save a few isolated souls. The one skyscraper he records on the far right, slicing off with the edge of the canvas was symptomatic for Hopper and others of the negative transformation that was occurring in the city with the rise of these massive buildings that loomed over earlier structures.
Toyen, C., Barter, J.A., Comey, J.L., Davis, E.B., Roberts, E.E. (2007). Edward Hopper. Boston: MFA Publications.
Poetry- Looking Poem
Write a four line poem about Hopper’s The City using the following guidelines:
Share poems with class.
Extension- Explore the poetry of Stephen Crane (1817-1900), an American realist poet. How does his work compare with Hopper’s painting? What elements do they have in common?
Edward Hopper was considered an American Realist painter. The painter Thomas Moran (The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado, 1875) is often described as an American Romantic artist.
List as many adjectives you can for Hopper’s The City followed by Moran’s The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Without telling what work of art you are referring to, share an adjective from the list with the class and classmates guess which work the work belongs to. Support your word choice with visual evidence from the work.
What does Edward Hopper’s work say about the time in which it was created? What does the image say about the new nation and what in the work communicates that? How does each personify America? Are any of these personifications ‘true’ today?
Extension- Compare and contrast Edward Hopper’s landscape to Thomas Moran’s The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Explore Realism and Idealism in American literature and visual art. Compare Hopper’s work to literary examples of American Idealism (John Steinbeck, Jack London, or Mark Twain). Compare Thomas Moran’s work to literary examples of Romanticism (Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Walt Whitman). Use the Text to Text Connections worksheet to document your observations. Write an essay explaining what elements they have in common and how the style of each work is similar. Cite examples from written texts and the visual work of art.
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