Few artists have depicted the reality of modern society as well as Edward Hopper, one of the preeminent American realists of the twentieth century. With his simple yet arresting works, generally urban or rural landscapes inhabited by a few individuals, Hopper created ambiguous narratives rife with underlying tension. He skillfully manipulated lighting and space in his paintings and drawings, engineering dynamic compositions and defining moods with precise lighting. The subjects of his works, anonymous and nearly caricatured individuals, meticulously posed to agitate the still spaces they occupy, resonate with the undercurrents of loneliness and detachment in modern America. The beauty of Hopper’s intense realism is found in the profound complexity he achieved in his work, and the simplicity with which he executed it.
Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, New York, and trained as an artist at both the New York School of Illustration and the New York School of Art. He visited Europe three times during his career, though these trips had little influence upon his work. He spent the majority of his professional life in New York City or in New England, concentrating his efforts on depicting commonplace scenes in urban and rural settings.
While known for his paintings, Hopper’s drawings share the dynamic compositions and eerie detachment of his more famous works. Though his drawings outnumber his larger oil paintings, to Hopper they constituted elements of the artistic process rather than finished pieces. Drawing for Hopper was a training ground for concepts: in his drawings, he formulates composition and studies form, tinkers with nuanced poses and lighting. One easily sees the process of revision and exploration that Hopper undertook as he developed his pieces. He primarily used Conté Crayon, charcoal, or graphite in his drawings, and worked in range of styles from sketchy to exacting and precise.
This series of drawings is a study for Nighthawks (1942, Graphite on paper),one of Hopper’s most famous paintings. In these thumbnail sketches, Hopper develops the piece’s complex angular composition, using the intersecting diagonals to create multiple planes of space. The figures, while only briefly defined, appear isolated and aloof; even these rough sketches express the unease created by the mutual anonymity of the figures. Nighthawks epitomizes Hopper’s style: the subtle geometry and detached customers of the corner café suggest the loneliness within America's post-depression metropolis. Hopper stayed away from the modern icons in New York City, but his poignant representations of everyday city life resonated much more with angst which underpinned American life.
Study for Route 6, Eastham (Conté Crayon and Graphite on Paper) explores the vastness of the American landscape and the correlating isolation of the individual. Here, Hopper utilizes a lateral composition sliced by the diagonal of the road, causing the horizon to appear to extend infinitely in the distance. Hopper accentuates this horizontal composition with the clean, rigid geometry of the house and barn. The drawing evokes the perspective of a passing traveler, alone in the stark environment.
Study for Williamsburg Bridge (1928, Conté Crayon on Paper) demonstrates Hopper’s affinity for depicting traditional architecture and natural lighting. Hopper emphasizes the bold shadows and light-drenched façades the sun creates upon this apartment complex. He creates an interesting dynamic between the rigidity of Victorian architecture and the muted details of the buildings due to the strong lighting. Like in many of his paintings, surface textures and minute details are simplified to depict the fleeting impressions of lighting. In terms of subject, Hopper’s work differs from that of many of his contemporaries: in contrast to the modernity and abstraction present in other works of the 20th century, Hopper’s depictions of traditional architecture and commonplace life arouse nostalgia and memory.
I have always been intrigued by Hopper’s work. His color choice and composition are executed with such purpose; the characters in his paintings are fascinating in their realistic yet almost grotesque appearances. While I was mainly familiar with Hopper’s paintings, I have enjoyed looking at his drawings and witnessing his process of refining form and compositions. His style is not particularly expressive, yet he masterfully creates scenes of tension and introspection.
Foster, Carter E., ed. Edward Hopper. Milan, Italy: Skira Editore S.p.A, 2009. Print.
Smith, Edward Lucie. "Edward Hopper." Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists. Thames & Hudson, 1999. Mark Harden's Artchive. Web. 07 Oct. 2011.