two men stand in front of Edward Hoppers Sunday Morning discussing the painting

Edward Hopper: The Everyday Cityscape, His Way

When hopper was painting in the 1930s, apartment complexes were new. They were a cheaper way of building with more space and more light. Hopper painted at least one, which was part of the Whitney’s “Hopper’s New York” (Oct 19, 2022 – March 5, 2023), seen below. Audio guide narrator Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, explained that at the time, he imagines, buildings of this sort would have seemed intimidating and inhuman.

Painting by Hopper of tall apartments along the river in New York City, American Realist Painting
Edward Hopper, Apartment Houses, East River, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 35 1/16 × 60 1/8 in. (89.1 × 152.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1211. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Images used with permission from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

But Hopper didn’t portray the city as intimidating or inhuman. He usually brought it to a human scale.

Edward Hopper is best known for his depictions of people, seemingly disconnected or isolated, placed within a mundane yet haunting built environment. He wanted to tell the story of the human condition and our relationships.

He considered himself a storyteller. He relied on the use of light and angles to contribute mood to the story. People were central figures, but buildings and the built environment played a critical role.

Hopper’s ability to capture the spirit of a building was remarkable, as stated by painter Donald Stoltenberg (The Artist and the Built Environment). Through simplification and elimination he could increase the presence and monumentality of a building.

Hopper’s Vernacular

The architecture that Hopper made the focus of his work represented low-rise vernacular structures. In fact, his indifference to skyscrapers has been called remarkable for a painter of New York architecture. Hopper is known for exploring the everyday landscape and ignoring the shiny, fancy, or otherwise, special constructions of the city. He removed buildings and bridges as he saw fit.

(For a definition and discussion of the word vernacular, see my previous post. In this post on Edward Hopper the word is used slightly more loosely for American buildings including those in the city or suburbs.)

Hopper equated everyday, vernacular buildings with integrity and authenticity. “Our native architecture, with its hideous beauty, its fantastic roofs, … delicate harmonies of faded paint, shouldering one another along interminable streets…these appear again and again, as they should in any honest delineation of the American scene.”1In Incollect “Edward Hopper and Nyack”, includes Edward Hopper quoted in “Charles Burchfield: American,” The Arts 14 (July 1928) 7

His predilection for the vernacular landscape is said to have its roots in his boyhood home of Nyack, New York.

Yellow House painted by Hopper in 1923. the gable of the house faces forward with a porch and small out buildings to its left
The Yellow House,(1923) Hopper, from Edward Hopper Masterpieces by R. Ormiston Copyright Christie’s Images Ltd.

Hopper’s Style

Seeing Hopper’s works grouped together at the Whitney, The Art Newspaper explains that “it becomes ever more apparent that Hopper’s New York is almost always one that other artists of his age ignored: where the Ash Can painters sought out the crowds and the bustle of everyday life, Hopper searched for the empty corners, for quiet lives taking place behind windows, for moments of reverie. Where the Modernists looked up at the skyscrapers, Hopper focused on historic, unfashionable buildings.”   

Hopper never wanted to be pigeonholed into an art movement or group. He simply said he liked to paint sunlight on buildings (Masterpieces). “There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house…”  (Quoted in Incollect from Katharine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists p.140)

Today his work is often referred to as American Realism or New Realism. American Realism loosely began in the 1850s, partly to reject early 19c romanticism. A critical representation of real life in an unidealized form, concentrated on the poor, and the working or middle class. It highlighted regional aspects of urban and rural living.

In line with this movement, in Hopper’s New York, there is a painting of the Queensborough Bridge (1913) (below). In the Whitney exhibit audio guide, artist Kambui Olujimi acknowledges that there is a “hierarchy of bridges” in New York and this painting might challenge these assumptions. “The Brooklyn Bridge is the king of bridges in this city. .. Queensborough Bridge is not a major player in the hierarchy.”

To pick the Queensborough, Hopper is shining light on the taken for granted rather than the higher status icons of the built environment.

Hopper painting of the Queensborough Bridge fading into the distant fog, American realism painting
Edward Hopper, Queensborough Bridge, 1913. Oil on canvas, 25 7/8 × 38 1/8 in. (65.7 × 96.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1184. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Kim Conaty, Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Whitney Museum said in a podcast “I think that Hopper was always intrigued by a New York and by a city that was maybe the less iconic version, the less picture postcard version of New York. … It struck me as quite interesting and maybe even contrarian to think of an artist like Hopper who painted so many of New York’s bridges, … but he specifically left out the Brooklyn Bridge, … not giving the obvious, iconic, symbolic view of New York. ” 

An Eye Towards Preservation

Hopper and his wife Jo “shared a deep belief in the preservation of the city’s buildings. In 1947, they narrowly avoided eviction as they fought against the encroachment of New York University.” They repeatedly faced the threat of redevelopment of their beloved Washington Park neighborhood rowhouse, bought in 1913. 2Jennie Goldstein, “‘We Are Not Sleeping’: The Hoppers’ Fight for Washington Square,” in Edward Hopper’s New York (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022  

Architecture and historic buildings mattered to him. Hopper always depicted place through architecture and infrastructure, such as bridges, and rooftop mechanics. He developed and depicted mood through light, its intensity and direction, highlighting people’s isolation or contemplation, alone even if among others in the space. 

Hopper painting of a woman standing at a ground floor office window as viewed from outside.
Edward Hopper, New York Office, 1962. Oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 55 1/8 in. (102.9 x 140 cm). Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; The Blount Collection. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Roof top view with water towner, NYC, Hopper paiting
Edward Hopper, Rooftops 1926

The Whitney exhibition audio guide describes Early Sunday Morning (1930) (featured image) as an incredibly intimate view of row shops and upper apartments. Hopper called it an almost literal translation of 7th avenue. And while a larger building looms overhead, as if the city is encroaching, the focus is put on the human scale buildings.

Berman explains in the audio guide that many of Hopper’s paintings inspire a feeling of impending change. “What’s going to become of this person?” Early Sunday Morning captures that in a specific way. Through the boom of the 1920s, so much of early NY was really changing or disappearing by 1930.

The 2022-2023 exhibition looked at Hopper’s relationship with the city of New York. He grew to love the view from the elevated train on his commutes to art school.

The exhibition even included black and white video footage of the era to help viewers place themselves in the passenger’s perspective, looking down and across at buildings, and people within their apartments and offices. This is the perspective that Hopper adopts for many of his paintings. It might be this fidelity to the linear nature of the train and tracks that encouraged Hopper’s horizontality of the canvas.

Cityscape in the background and a railyard in the foreground of Hopper painting
Edward Hopper, Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928. Oil on canvas, 35 × 60 in. (88.9 × 152.4 cm). Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
view of city brick buildings from a roof
Edward Hopper, From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928. Oil on canvas, 29 3/8 × 43 3/4 in. (74.6 × 111.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; George A. Hearn Fund, 1937. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Elevated train video footage, circa early 1900s, playing at the Whitney’s Hopper’s New York show 2023

Ordinary Landscapes

In his book The Artist and the Built Environment, Donald Stoltenberg quoted Hopper talking about landscape artist Charles Burchfield (again). Hopper said “his work is most decidedly founded, not on art, but on life, and the life that he knows and loves best. From what is to the … unseeing layman the boredom of everyday existence in a provincial community, he has extracted a quality that we may call poetic, romantic …. [C]ars and locomotives lying in God forsaken railways,… The blank concrete walls and steel constructions of modern industry… All the sweltering, tawdry life of the American small town, and behind all, the sad desolation of the suburban landscape. He derives daily stimulus from these that others flee from or pass with indifference.”

Stoltenberg continues with what we all are thinking. “Hopper might have been describing himself.” He might have been describing many of his contemporaries, and landscape realists to come after him who focus on the built environment.

There is much to see in these landscapes we take for granted, almost ignoring as we pass daily. Some of our greatest painters have made these hidden aspects the subject of their work.

See the next post on how photorealists present the everyday landscape.

Additional Resources: Avis Berman’s 2005 book, also titled Edward Hopper’s New York

www.edwardhopperhouse.org

Hopper painting of a drug store at night with no one on the street
Edward Hopper, Drug Store, 1927. Oil on canvas, 29 × 40 1/8 in. (73.7 × 101.9 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; bequest of John T. Spaulding. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • 1
    In Incollect “Edward Hopper and Nyack”, includes Edward Hopper quoted in “Charles Burchfield: American,” The Arts 14 (July 1928) 7
  • 2
    Jennie Goldstein, “‘We Are Not Sleeping’: The Hoppers’ Fight for Washington Square,” in Edward Hopper’s New York (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2022

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