Friday, November 6, 2009

Sitting Down to Breakfast with Edward Hopper



Philip Koch, Hopper Studio Kitchen, pastel, 6 x 8", 2004

This is a pastel drawing I did on location in Edward Hopper's old painting studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. The studio was designed by Hopper himself in 1934 (built at the height of the Depression with money his wife Jo inherited).

The studio reveals Hopper's single minded devotion to making his paintings the center of his life. An unusually tall man (over 6' 7") he saved fully half of the dwelling's space to his painting room and had to cram everything else into what was left. The kitchen is quite small and is furnished with a table and two chairs more suited to doll furniture than holding the behind of America's preeminent realist painter. In choices like these Hopper shows us his priorities.

One can learn a lot from Hopper. I know I have. He studied painting with the legendary personality Robert Henri, by all accounts a highly charismatic teacher.Hopper absorbed from Henri much knowledge about making paintings but also managed to not get stuck standing in Henri's shadow. Hopper has the self awareness to realize his own personality would lead him to a somewhat different vision.

And what a vision it was. Perhaps like nobody else, Hopper could look at the seemingly ordinary and catch ahold of its hidden romance. In particular his knack for building contrasts of bright light and sharp shadows gave us unrivaled compositions. They frequently surprise us with what he chose. Looking at a Hopper composition I often find myself saying to myself "I never thought of it like that."

Hopper wasn't a technical genius like John Singer Sargent. It's not uncommon to discern a slight stumble here and there in his work. But he found ways to work around his limitations. His paintings earned broad respect from all corners of the art world , both avant and traditional. I remember reading in the book of Robert Henri's teachings, The Art Spirit, about Henri advising his students to go out and do a masterpiece today and not wait for some future time when one would have amassed greater skills. Henri I think conveyed to Hopper the urgency of painting. Fine something that truly moves you and half the time the depth of your feeling will show you a way to make the painting happen.

I never literally had breakfast with Edward Hopper. But sitting in his uncomfortable kitchen chair to drink my morning coffee he nonetheless left me some clear hints about how to be the real deal.




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