Secrets About Seeing from Edward Hopper

Here's a striking portrait of Jo Hopper, the spouse of the famous painter, by Hopper himself. It has a forcefulness to it. You get the feeling Jo was a woman of energy and substance (she was). She looks like the kind of person who could surprise you at any moment.

Artists have to evoke such feelings with their limited means of shape and color. So over the centuries they've learned what works and what doesn't. Hopper was a master at finding expressive shapes for his paintings. By shapes I really mean silhouettes.  Let's take a fresh look at Jo Hopper by turning her upsidedown. This is one of the best studio tricks artists have been using all these years to see more than the average person- try it. It works.

Standing on her head like this Jo is in some ways far easier to see- our usual habit of looking first to the eyes and mouth gets subverted. Instead, your eye goes to bigger issues. Look at how architectural Jo looks. Mostly her silhouette is drawn with straight lines. In real life her hair is soft and fiberous, but here it looks more like the peaked roof of a house.

A particular triumph of this oil is the intriguing wedge-shaped space between her jaw and far shoulder. That empty space feels packed with compressed energy. Overall the head feels really massive, like a sculpture, yet through most of the face there is hardly any modeling with shadows at all. Instead Hopper focuses on the contours of her chin, nose, and eye socket to give you the feeling of the woman. It works beautifully.

One other critical area is the hairline marching in series of abstract and jagged straight lines from the forehead, down and around her ear, and then falling vertically down her neck. Hopper's bold drawing provides a road map for the viewer's eye. How many inferior portaits have you seen where the eyes are automatically made the focal point of the head whether or not they're of any genuine interest. Here Hopper finds a more surprising note of interest in Jo's ear, and he puts a bright highlight on it to draw our attention. In comparison, Jo's eye is understated.

I think we all look to our friends for a sense of generosity and surprise. We want to learn something new when we talk with them. So it is with this portrait of Jo Hopper. You notice things about her you've overlooked in other people a thousand times before. It's ironic that Hopper was a legendarily remote and asocial. But as a painter he's like your closest friend, showing you all sorts of secrets and surprises about his wife Jo. In his daily life perhaps he was unable to share his generous side, but in his painting life he gives us far more than most others. What a guy.


  1. Excellent post Philip! I've not thought of it that way, but I hear ya~ your right!
    With the focal point being the ear, do you supose he was saying Jo was a good listener?

  2. Well said. I probably learned more from Hopper than anyone about what it means to be a "visual" artist. You've no doubt seen the interview with Hopper in which Jo does most of the talking! Given his retiring nature he was probably most comfortable approaching her obliquely rather than head on.

  3. Billl, interesting question. Was it just the way the light hi the ear that drew Hopper's attention, or did he unconsciously feel the ear symbolized something about Jo? Or maybe both?

  4. Frank, thanks. There is something about Hopper's way of working that makes him a particularly good teacher isn't there. Of course he's a master of selectivity, composition, and light effects. But he's also so straightforward with the way he put paint down- big, bold and simple. Usually only a very few carefully chosen details in his paintings.

    I take breaks from looking at Hopper of several weeks to many months at a time. But when I feel the urge to look at him again I alwasy find something new in an old painting I've never noticed before.

  5. goodpost. thank you.

  6. Rahina thanks. I've always loved that particular Hopper oil. He did a whole lot with just a little.


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