The writer must admit that she does not often have the exhilarating experience of coming inadvertently upon her critical opinions expressed long enough ago to have forgotten her responsibility in the matter and upon the discovery of their authorship be able to say with Charles Lamb, "Did I say that? How good it is." Usually the omniscient appraisements made in one's early years have a pretentiousness that is embarrassing. Too frequently one has lived to modify one's opinion. This was not the reaction when, in looking up Edward Hopper's exhibition activities in New York, I read the following appreciation on the occasion of his exhibiting four water colors at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 under the heading "Brooklyn Museum Emphasizes New Talent." The article read: "The Hopper group is one of the high spots of the exhibition. What vitality, force and directness! Observe what can be done with homeliest subject, provided one has the seeing eye." This referring to Mr. Hopper's introduction of the General Grant, Garfield, and McKinley periods of American architecture into contemporary painting.
The "seeing eye," the quality in Edward Hopper's work which stirred me in 1923, is again what gives his work its personality and distinction in the retrospective exhibition now on view at the Modern museum. Perhaps Mr. Hopper's appraisement of the work of Charles Burchfield, which appeared in the Arts magazine some time ago, apropos of the seeing eye, could be quoted as equally descriptive of his own. "As is usually the case," he wrote, "when one meets such intimate interpretations of the common phases of existence and of nature's more commonly encountered moods, one wonders why it had not been done before, since it reveals what many had had at heart and always had seen but considered unworthy to be dignified by art." And then he quoted the celebrated passage from Emerson: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more abiding lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility, then most when the cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our opinion from another."
Edward Hopper was the first painter, to again use his own words, to liberate certain types of subject from the taboos of their time. He saw aspects of his environment that no other member of the Henri group, determined to go to life about them for their subject matter, had seen. Just as the cool detachment of his point of view differed from the emotional, satirical and dramatic approach to native material found in the work of a George Bellows or a John Sloan. Main Street, suburban villas, the frame houses of sordid side streets, the flamboyance of certain types of American dwelling houses, notably the mansard roof period, the dinginess of run-down apartment houses as well as the shining whiteness of a light house tower in the sun or the violet shadows of a white house are among the subjects which the possession of the seeing eye discovered.
But to enumerate his subjects is to find that they have extended far beyond the type of subject matter that first brought him to the attention of the art-loving public. His much quoted motto, "Anything will do for a composition," more nearly describes the extent of his subject matter.
But in deciding that anything would do for a subject Hopper exercises a creative selectiveness that in itself helps to give his work its distinctive style. Apparently a realist with a cool objective approach to his subject, he in reality creates as ordered a design as any art-for-art's sake painter could desire. Definitely opposed to the school of esthetics that disavows the importance of visual reality and human implication as material for art, his pictures nevertheless can be reduced to as carefully arranged geometric patterns as any cubist ever indulged in.
The story of Edward Hopper's career as it is unfolded at the Modern Museum commences with some caricatures of French types done in Paris about 15 years ago before he discovered that his metier was the American scene. The next chapter is the etchings, then the water colors and the latest phase, oils. The group of oils comprise almost his entire output in this medium, since he has only been using it for the past five years.
The exhibition as a whole is stimulating and satisfactory, not only because of the consistent high quality of the work, although among the oils there are lapses, but because despite the statement that anything can do for a subject matter, the subject matter chosen is consistently interesting and the point of view genuine. No tricks, no superficialities, no seeking after fashions or catering to popular taste, but serious searching statements of the artist's vision of life.
At a time when there has been so much artificiality, so much affectation about native quality, so much spurious work turned out in the name of the American spirit, it is refreshing and sobering to visit an exhibition in which there can be no question of the artist's integrity and wherein that intangible something of native quality is given a convincing exposition.
The Modern Museum's new policy of holding one-man exhibitions of the works of living artists has been criticized, but this exhibition is extremely timely. It fits into the national mood. It is American 100 percent, if you will, and proves again conclusively and effectively that the only art that has quality must be racial.
Edward Hopper's rise to fame, and it has been a rapid one, since in the ten years that he has been before the public he has come to be one of the most discussed figures in American art, is partially to be explained by the fact that he has come in on the rising time of nationalism. He fulfilled all the requirements of what was meant by racial quality in American art, Puritan austerity and nothing in excess, an emotional response to his native environment, and above all independence of thought and spirit. His work was the antithesis of the type of work produced under the domination of French standards, as his insistence that art must have the enrichment of human implications and emotions if it was not to atrophy into sterile stylisms, came at a moment when the atrophy seemed imminent.
The curious detachment and impersonality characteristic of a typical Hopper canvas might seem to contradict his belief that a picture must be enriched by human implications. But it happens that for all his detachment and his restraint the compositions are vivid with emotional implications. More effectively so when the implications remain as such. Obvious human interest canvases, such as "Tables for Ladies," loaned by the Metropolitan Museum to the present exhibition, or the "Hotel Bedroom," are among his least successful efforts. Canvases which suggest the lives of people beyond open windows and half-closed doors carry with them enough human interest and without disturbing the classic detachment of his designs.
Helen Appleton Read, "Edward Hopper," Brooklyn Daily Eagle (5 November, 1933), n.p.