Edward Hopper's Secret Life as a Circus Performer

Last week I got a thoughtful response to my post on Edward Hopper.It included some intriguing questions. One of them follows-

One question I do have though it how much you think his style of handling of the paint was intentional. Hopper was such an incredible editor and something as fundamental as "his style" must have been one of the most intentional decisions he made. 

No one can crawl inside Hopper's head, so right off the bat my opinions are just educated (I think) conjecture. But here goes.

I believe there is more to all of us than meets the eye. That there are depths to our emotions and understanding that lie just beyond the grasp of what we normally can know. People look to art because on some level they just sense it's going to show them something they can't learn any other way. 

When I was a kid I saw jugglers when my folks took me to the circus. Impressed, I hurried home to grab some balls to start practicing this amazing skill. I tried juggling first with two balls  and managed to keep them airborn for about two seconds. Undaunted I dropped back to practicing just with one ball, figuring once I had the necessary hand moves deliberately clear in my head it would be possible to slip a second ball into the mix and then build up from there. But no matter how determinedly I practiced, I could never get past the threshold of just one ball. No doubt most of us had the same experience. Painting is a lot like juggling, but it means keeping lots of balls in the air.

Even the relatively simple Hopper self portrait oil above is instructive. It's pretty good. Hopper had to contend with a zillion decisions to pull this one off so well. Looking at it one gets a sense of quiet but powerful personality emanating from the figure. Much of it comes from which forms he chose to emphasize and which he held back in subordinate roles.

Nine out of ten portrait paintings put the high contrasts in the face, usually in the eyes and mouth. Hopper instead lightens up the dark accents in these areas and softens their edges. Instead of looking here within the face, he pulls your eye to the outer silhouette of he figure. Look closely at the right hand outer contour of Hopper's jaw as it bends inward to the left, meets his neck, and then bends out to the right again as you ride down his far shoulder. With these moves he's given the empty white wall just to the right of Hopper's head a role as a co-star with the figure itself. 

Hopper instinctively knew the personality of the sitter had to flow out of every part of the painting, so he focused his efforts on writing a duet for the head and the brightest part of the wall to sing together. 

Another great touch is the bottom of his hat brim. You know he wants your eye to fix on it because he's chosen to make it so much darker than the features of the face. It just stands out. Just to the right of his forehead it climbs upwards along a diagonal trajectory that runs exactly parallel to the diagonal junction of the wall and floor. 

Then a third amazing design idea is Hopper's left shoulder. Trace the diagonal line of his shoulder starting on the left side of the painting and keep going. You run directly into the upper right hand corner of the canvas.  It helps the figure "fit" the canvas seamlessly. The figure is completely at home in the world of this painting.

The design ideas are somewhat easier to see with Hopper standing on his head. It helps us forget what we're looking at and see instead how it's painted.

Hopper had been trained to begin his paintings with thin turpentine washes to establish the basic forms and colors covering just about all the canvas. Then he'd go back over the painting with a second pass, adding thicker layers of pigment where he needed to make an adjustsment. Or he'd scrape out an area with his palette knife, or wash out an area with a turpentine soaked rag. Adding and subtracting pigment, a gradually realized image emerged that came closer to the only partly-sensed vision in his imagination. 

Sometimes it would happen that the initial underpainting in one part of the painting would prove to have been just right. Satisfiied with parts like that, Hopper would leave those sections very thinly painted. Other areas he'd have to go back over again and again dozens of times trying to get them to match the sensation he was after. 

How much of his own decision making was Hopper aware of. I'm sure a great deal of it. But my feeling is the richness of his paintings is achieved by the paintings operating on so many levels at once. Even the most brilliantly clear minded artist couldn't see every implication of all his paint strokes. 

Here's where painting gets like circus juggling. The juggler has to move fast, catching and tossing at just the right moment as each of the circling balls fly into his hands. Sometimes you'll see jugglers handling four or five or more balls at once. Impressive as that is, I think Hopper's achievement is like keeping hundreds of balls in the air at once. Like the well-practiced juggler, his hands were guided by his intuition and instincts as much as by conscious thought. 

So my guess is that Hopper was extremely deliberate in his struggle to make paintings that came as close as possible to an inner experience he was having. He was a deeply receptive and inventive guy. Often he could do paintings with more and better relationships hidden in the shapes and colors than most other artists. 

His ambition reached far ahead of the skills he could consciously control. But he somehow opened a door to that hidden, unconscious side of his personality where other parts of his talents dwelled. Those mysterious and wonderful qualities of his best paintings resulted from Hopper painting from his whole personality- the part he could direct and the parts he could only hope would arise from his unconscious to aid him in his studio. 

The really old time artists used to talk about this mysterious side of their creativity by using the term the Muse. Always it was described as a she and often they'd complain she wouldn't always make an appearance when they needed her. Below is a Hopper oil where I feel Hopper could have used some additional help from the muse. To my eye the standing woman is awkwardly painted and falls below the level he achieved with the sense of the light flooding into the room. (right now as I write these words Hopper of course is up in art heaven conducting a blistering critique on some of my worst oils).


  1. A wonderful post Philip and terrific analysis of the self portrait. The way he placed himself against the emptiness of the wall and the cropped door is just so Hopper. I agree with you about the figure in the bottom one, but for me that awkwardness is also there in other more successful works. In fact, I think it is one of Hopper's many charms and a way that he connects with that part of all of us that feels separate and apart from the world.

  2. Thanks Deborah,

    You wrote "he connects with that part of all of us that feels separate and apart from the world."

    That is true, and part of everyone's expeience is feeling awkward and behaving awkwardly. Maybe my choice of words would be not so much that it's the awkwardness that attracts me to his paintings as that Hopper was open to the slightly strange and surprising side of Iiving. What I find delightful in Hopper's best works is his celebration of those little visual discoveries that have to be sensed in one's private moments.

    Maybe the real achievement is at his best he takes the beauty he found in his separate and apart from the world life and found a way to share it through his paintings.

  3. Thanks so much for that post. I've read it a few times now and I think I am finally starting to get it.

    I think what you wrote explains why certain people (myself included) love his stuff so much. If you can hear that same note that he heard you can tell how close he got to it. So it's a strange form of "realism" where his goal was exactly recreate that base feeling something evoked.

    Thanks for taking the time to help me understand that.

  4. Adam thanks for your kind comments. Certainly life and art are bigger than you and I and Hopper put togethr, and no one interpretation can nail it all down. The best any of us can do is to try to remain open, energetic, and humble.


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