3 Washington Square, New York
October 19th 1939
Mr. Charles H. Sawyer
Addison Gallery of American Art
Dear Mr. Sawyer:
You are asking me to do something which is perhaps as difficult to do as painting is; that is to explain painting with words.
To me form, color and design are merely a means to an end, the tools I work with, and they do not interest me greatly for their own sake. I am interested primarily in the vast field of experience and sensation which neither literature nor a purely plastic art deals with. One must say guardedly, human experience, for fear of having it confounded with superficial anecdote. I am always repelled by painting that deals narrowly with harmonies or dissonances of color and design.
My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects rather than others, I do not exactly know, unless it is that . . . I believe them to be the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience.
I spend many days usually before I find a subject that I like well enough to do, and spend a long time on the proportions of the canvas, so that it will do for the design, as nearly as possible what I wish it to do. The very long horizontal shape of this picture, "Manhattan Bridge Loop" is an effort to give a sensation of great lateral extent. Carrying the main horizontal lines of the design with little interruption to the edges of the picture, is to enforce this idea and to make one conscious of the spaces and elements beyond the limits of the scene itself. The consciousness of these spaces is always carried by the artist to the very limited space of the subject that he intends to paint, though I believe all painters are not aware of this.
The picture was planned very carefully in my mind before starting it, but except for a few small black and white sketches made from the fact, I had no other concrete data, but relied on refreshing my memory by looking often at the subject. The preliminary sketches would do little for you in explaining the making of the picture. The color, design, and form have all been subjected, consciously or otherwise to considerable simplification.
So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious, that it seems to me most all of the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect. But these are things for the psychologist to untangle.
I hope that what I have written will be of use to you.
Edward Hopper to Charles H. Sawyer (19 October 1939). Courtesy, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.