Edward Hopper shares his most famous subject matter with many artists of the first half of the twentieth century: commerce, alienation in the modern city, neon, anonymous wo¬men in public places, shop windows, and artificial light. But the Hopper retrospective at the National Gallery of Art (through January 21, 2008) reveals that Hopper’s approach is completely different from that of many European modernists (for example, the artists featured in the National Gallery’s recent “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945”). Where these modernists tend to emphasize the newness of the skyscraper-city, pitting technology against its human inventors, Hopper knows that the city is a place made by and for people. There are no crowds in Hopper. (There are also no wars and no dictators-the most obvious explanation for his difference from the Europeans.) Even his New Yorkers are always more than members of a crowd.
Hopper’s best-known paintings are mostly his chilliest: Nighthawks and even Chop Suey seem to present human types rather than human beings. But his other New York City paintings often include the little details that make a figure an individual, like the one glove removed by the coffee-drinker in Automat. Lonely House is an etching of a narrow row house, all the buildings next to it demolished. The house stands like an unwanted cake slice; but at its base, seen from high up, two little girls are playing, making the vacant lot a place of life and companionship rather than the loneliness suggested by the title.
Even when Hopper paints his famous ranks of city windows, without a single human in sight, human individuality is implied by the way that each window is dressed differently. The tenant of this apartment leaves his window up, that one closes it and pulls the blind, another likes lace curtains. Hopper’s influence on the movies is obvious-Night Windows and Apartment Houses are the direct predecessors of Hitchcock’s Rear Window; the sunnily sensual Summertime reminds me of the film Shadow of a Doubt; Nighthawks has inspired countless noirish diner scenes. The National Gallery has linked its Hopper show to a film series, including flicks like Deadline at Dawn and Little Caesar. But perhaps the cinematic line most appropriate to his work is from The Naked City: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
If every window hides a story, it’s usually the story of a woman. Hopper’s many women have deep intelligence and interiority. They keep their own counsel. The usher in New York Movie is a blonde whose beauty is intensified by her calm, private expression; she is turned away from the screen, apart from the audience, because her own thoughts are more interesting to her (and to the painter) than the movie. Hopper’s women are often naked but rarely exposed.
The combination of vulnerability and secrecy helps give many of Hopper’s paintings their characteristic spookiness. He’s perfectly capable of painting something merely lovely-wooden steps leading down to a Cape Cod beach are so perfectly rendered that you can almost feel the sandy planks beneath your feet-but his best work is Hitchcockian in its quiet, suggestive menace.
Compare two depictions of the highway as a site of human vulnerability: Paul Wolff’s 1936 photograph Reichsautobahn, and Hopper’s 1940 Gas. Reichsautobahn is all inhuman rush, a car speeding down a highway curving like an enormous racetrack; Gas is an eerie humanist portrait of the owner of a gas station wandering around his lonely fuel pumps beside a carless highway cutting through forest. Reichsautobahn is purely artificial, while much of the technical achievement of Gas lies in the way Hopper shifts slowly and masterfully from natural to neon light. Reichsautobahn is the New Man, Gas is the common clay. Gas is also noir: the old fears in the new places.
Hopper doesn’t pit man and nature against each other. In Railroad Train, the railroad car shoulders through high grass. Thick brushstrokes make it look like a furry old animal. All of Hopper’s telephone poles are manned by squadrons of birds. Just as humans are part of his cityscapes, technology is part of his landscapes.
This reconciliation of man and nature may make Hopper seem homey. But in fact, the most striking quality of both his technique and his vision is his willingness to depict the sublime. Windows often appear in his works as playful or poignant reminders of how much we hide and how much we unwittingly reveal to others; but they also, at least as often, appear as gateways through which some larger mystery, represented by sunlight or a sudden wind, can intrude on our solitude. Perhaps the quintessential Hopper image is a naked woman beside a window as the wind blows in the curtains. To my mind, the most breathtaking of these images is Evening Wind, a small black-and-white etching in which a woman’s entire response to the inrushing of this unsettling force can be seen in the urgent angle of her shoulders and the vulnerability of her nudity. When people call Hopper a “cinematic” painter, they mean that he can make noise and quiet on the canvas: both the meditative quiet of the woman’s bedroom and the sudden noise of the wind come across immediately, as do both her quiet soul and whatever sublimity it is responding to.
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