An Edward Hopper Scrapbook

The Silent Witness (excerpt)


At a roadside diner in California one day last week, a green and white 1954 three-hole Buick sedan came to a gentle halt and an elderly couple got out. They were tourists, just passing by. The birdlike little woman chattered warmly to the counterman as she ordered weak tea. Her husband, a tall, stooped, somber man in a sports jacket, remained aloof. His heavy bald dome wrinkled uneasily; his face drooped; his mouth was firmly shut. He folded and unfolded his big hands, cracking a knuckle occasionally and gazing with utter absorption, at the garish, commonplace surroundings. His blue-grey eyes shone steady and intense as the crack of dawn.

The travelers were Edward Hopper, painter extraordinary, and his wife Jo. Painter Hopper was hard at his usual work: eyewitnessing America. The American scene is not only Edward Hopper's one subject, but his obsession as well. He stares with sober passion at the most ordinary things about the U.S., sights that esthetes turn away from and everyone else takes for granted.

Gas stations, hotel lobbies, rooming houses, side streets, Pullman compartments, lighted windows, underpasses—such are the meager materials Hopper chooses to make immutable and unforgettable on canvas. Their fascination for him lies in the fact they are man-made, and common-man-made. He finds them appropriate for the expression of human striving in all its loneliness and disarray as well as its hints and spasms of nobility.

In Hopper's quiet canvases, blemishes and blessings balance. He will paint an ugly front stoop and the warmth of sunlight on it, or a sooty curtain stirring with the fragrance of an unexpected breeze. He presents common denominators, taken from everyday experiences, in a formal, somehow final, way. The results can have astonishing poignancy, as if they were familiar scenes solemnly witnessed for the very last time. "To me," says Hopper, "the important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when your traveling."

The Champion. As Hopper gazed silently and intently at California, a 29-picture exhibition of his work opened with a Hopper-like absence of fanfare at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Being staged in one of the nation's richest repositories of native art, the Boston show underlined Hopper's place in a great and continuing tradition.

In the years since World War II, Americans have awakened, as never before, to the world's art heritage, and have discovered the startling truth that a sizable and important part of that heritage exists in their own backyard. U.S. art, as Americans in general are beginning to realize … [has] for the past two centuries … stood on its own feet, comparing favorably with the art of every other nation except France. Drawing depth and drama from the history it helps illustrate, it has reflected not European painting but American life— rough and smooth, tumultuous and diverse. And though it is a great river of many sources and many passing moods, its strongest single current throughout is a searching realism. One measure of Edward Hopper's importance: he is today the revered champion of that tradition.…

In an age when equality under God is too often confused with sameness, and all races and places are presumed to be really alike underneath, Americans are apt to underrate their own heritage. Not Hopper, who says flatly that "a nation's art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people. …" A sampling of the best American painting can prove Hopper's point.…

"I've Seen That!" … In the supposedly materialistic era following the Civil War, three titans loomed on the horizon of U.S. art, as they still do today: Ryder, Homer and Eakins. Ryder saw life as something of a dream, Homer as a struggle, and Eakins as a solemn commitment. Each pictured it as he saw it, with complete integrity, so their works are as different as morning, noon and night. Yet each can make the viewer exclaim, "I've seen that!" Their strong recognition value bespeaks a reverence for reality common to all three.

Edward Hopper's works, being of the present, are the most immediately "recognizable" of all. Hopper feels closer to Eakins than to any of his other predecessors, though he considers that "Eakins had much more humanity than I do." It is true that the people in Hopper's canvases are less individualized than the buildings, as if the artist had wished to avoid intruding on their lives. Hopper's own unalterable reserve makes him as surprising, in an age of clattering egos, as a tree growing in the middle of Main Street. He is profoundly "inner-directed," or, as he puts it, "a self-seeker."

In Search of Self. Hopper's search for self has been long, arduous and undeviating. It began in the town of Nyack, N.Y., up the Hudson River from Manhattan. There he was a bookish, gawky, well-bred boy—the son of a scholarly and unbusinesslike merchant—who built his own sailboat at the age of twelve. Five years later he enrolled in Robert Henri's art school on Manhattan's 57th Street. Henri was the presiding genius of an American art movement sneeringly dubbed the "Ash Can School." Instead of the vapid, idealistic studio pictures then in favor, the Ash Can painters showed what they had seen on the streets, in bold style. Hopper found their approach to subject matter agreeable, though their dark, flamboyant technique was not for him. "The only real influence I've ever had," he says, "was myself .…"

As all good students of art were expected to, Hopper went to Paris in 1906 for a year of study. But he bore little resemblance to the popular notion of an American art student in France. He kept to himself, sketching and painting along the Seine and in the parks. "I had heard of and knew about Gertrude Stein," he recalls, "but I wasn't important enough for her to know me. About the only important person I knew was Jo Davidson, and he was willing to look at me only because I knew the girl he was going to marry—met her on the boat going over."

It was the light and not the life of Paris that interested Student Hopper. "The light was different from anything I had known," he says. "The shadows were luminous—more reflected light. Even under the bridges there was a certain luminosity. May be it's because the clouds are lower, just over the housetops. I've always been interested in light—more than most contemporary painters, and certainly more than abstractionists."

Withdrawal & Return. History is full of men who withdrew to the desert to learn their true mission. Hopper did the same thing unconsciously and by necessity: he took up commercial art. The advertising and publishing houses that bought his drawings of storybook characters "posturing and grimacing" were desert sands to him: "Sometimes I'd walk around the block a couple of times before I'd go in, wanting the job for money and at the same time hoping to hell I wouldn't get the lousy thing."

Hopper yearned simply to "paint sunlight on the side of a house." But his oils lacked the gusto then in fashion. They showed an almost obsessive fear of the flourish. No one wanted them.

At last he produced some etchings that had a wholly new quality, the quality of himself. There followed a hesitant shower of equally exciting watercolors, and finally more oils. In 1924 he had his first one-man show of new work, which sold out. H married a painter named Josephine Nivison (who had also studied with Henri), shook the dust of commercial illustrations from his heels and began, at 43, the career he was born for.

"Recognition doesn't mean so much," says Hopper. "You never get it when you need it." But unlike some flashier reputations, Hopper's held once he got it. He has been top-rated in American art for three decades now, has been heaped, rightly, with honors and awards.

The awards have not impressed him. He seems more concerned over the fact that some critics seldom mention him ("It's as if they were embarrassed, or something"). His only comment on the Whitney Museum's great retrospective of his work, staged in 1950, was that the gallery always seemed crowded with pregnant women. Says he, with the faintest, iciest glimmer of a twinkle: "I guess they considered me a safe man to deal with." In 1953 Rutgers gave him an honorary degree, which pleased him mainly because General Alfred M. Gruenther received one at the same time. Offered a gold medal by the National Institute of Arts and Letters last year, Hopper fled to Mexico. He came back and accepted it only after being assured that he would not have to say anything except "thanks."

At the ceremony Hopper got the word out all right, but no more. His silences must be heard to be appreciated. Author John Dos Passos, an old friend, recalls that often when they had tea together he "felt that Hopper was on the verge of saying something, but he never did".… Even Mrs. Hopper (who does the family's share of talking) confesses that "sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn't thump when it hits bottom."

More than most artists, and far more than the generality of men, Hopper lives in his eyes. He handles words precisely, but they remain alien to him. He is untroubled by his own monumental reticence. "If you could say it in words," he shrugs, "there'd be no reason to paint."

Puritan into Purist. A painter friend of Hopper's, Guy Pène du Bois, pinpointed his genius way back in 1931: "Hopper denies none of the Anglo-Saxon attributes which are so strongly planted in his character. He has built an esthetic which expresses them directly. He has turned the Puritan in him into a purist, turned moral rigors into stylistic precisions." Du Bois' prophetic conclusion: "He will make many of the 'great' moderns seem like funny little reciters of fairy tales". …

Terrible Task. Hopper himself is habitually as disappointed in his own work as others are enthusiastic. His latest is a painting of a gas station on a four-lane highway. "I had the idea for it quite a while," he says. "But not so very long, I guess." (The reverse declarative is a Hopper hallmark.) "I didn't think much of it at the start. Still, if you're a painter you have to do something." Everything in Hopper's existence is geared to painting, but he finds the task terribly hard. He can seldom face canvas. He always hopes that his frequent trips will result in new works, but has learned to his pain, that they need not. Once he spent a whole summer in New Mexico, roaming that most scenic of states, and found material for just one watercolor: a locomotive. He once tried to paint the fine view over Washington Square from his Manhattan studio-home. "It must have been 15 or 20 years ago," he says. "I didn't finish it. Maybe I will some day."

Although his work has made him moderately prosperous in recent years (his oils bring about $6,000 each), Hopper and his wife live an astonishingly frugal life. Their Washington Square apartment is a fourth-floor walkup, 74 tiring steps above the street. It is heated by a pot-bellied stove, with coal hauled up in a dumb-waiter.

The place consists chiefly of two studios, his and hers. Josephine Hopper's studio is cheery and crowded with pictures; his is bright, bare, orderly and dominated by a 10-ft. high easel. Hopper built the easel himself, shortly after moving into the studio 43 long years ago. Perhaps twice a year he puts a canvas on it and paints steadily, averaging a month to finish a picture. The rest of the time it stands empty, while he broodingly tries to visualize his next work.

In summer the Hoppers occupy a little house alone on a high dune near Truro, Cape Cod. Hopper designed it himself, and it looks like a Hopper. The house makes no concessions to Cape Cod cuteness; it has no green shutters, no weathered shingles, only plain white clapboard, a solid, square-cut frame and a huge, clear picture window. Leading to it from the road is an almost impassably rutted track, a quarter of a mile long. Their neighbors debate whether the Hoppers have left their drive unpaved through unsociability or frugality. …

New World.
One remark of Emerson's applies very well to Hopper's own paintings: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." Hopper is clearly a genius of this kind: he paints not only what Americans have seen from the corners of their eyes, but also what they have dimly thought and felt about it. …

What Hopper has been able to do, he would never admit. He has opened a whole new chapter in American realism, painting a new world never before pictured. Where Copley created a world of men, Cole a world of nature, and Homer a world of struggle between the two, Hopper paints the raw, uneasy world that Americans have built on this land.…


"The Silent Witness," Time (24 December 1956), 28, 36–39.