Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Edward Hopper- Looking Out
Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 1950, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Above is a painting I've loved for some forty years. I'm fortunate to be able to see it often as it lives in the SAAM in Washington, D.C. . This painting contains a real clue to Hopper's art. I visit there often as it helps me learn how to see better.
Often writers will talk about the loneliness of Hopper's paintings or how his figures feel isolated and rarely interact with one another. While there is some of that in Hopper's painting, it begs a question-
why is Hopper's art so widely loved? I'd offer a couple of answers. First, he's one of the most talented painters and was able to invent visual equivalents for strong emotions we humans experience as we live our lives. He saw color combining in unexpected ways and offered up generous servings of the most delicious color combinations. Yum.
Usually, as in the SAAM's Cape Cod Morning above, when he paints a figure he shows us the figure intently looking out at something. Often we're not shown what they're peering at, which only heightens our curiosity. Our eye goes immediately to the woman in the house. Take a look at that window for a moment and measure its size compared to the woman. You realize Hopper has subtly enlarged it well past what's a normal scale. He wants you to be able to look into the interior world of the woman and the house. Had his window been smaller, the effect wouldn't have been as compelling.
By all accounts, Hopper was a painfully shy man who actively avoided social interaction. Yet he was as vivdly alive as any of us and put his energies into looking. You might say he lived through his eyes.
Hopper inherited money from his wife Jo's family and carefully designed a painting studio for himself where he would live half the year for the next three decades. In 1934 it was built high on a barren sand dune on Cape Cod in the little town of South Truro. Some time ago I was able to see the cardboard model Hopper painstakingly constructed of his design in an exhibition at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
His design was telling- the space of the new house was devoted to his big painting room that occupied the entire northern half of the building. And topping the painting room off were five casement windows, a dutch door with a window on top, and a massive ten foot tall north facing window. The studio was really an observatory where Hopper could look out at the world. It literally catches the first and the last rays of sunlight each day.
Below is an oil painting I did from life back in '83 during my first (of thirteen) residencies in the Hopper studio. Back then the surrounding foliage had started to fill back in compared to its more denuded state in Hopper's day (in the 19th and early 20th century, Cape Cod's trees were all but wiped out for firewood).
Though the surrounding trees are taller now, when one enters the studio now one is presented with amazing views in all directions.
I think the location and design of Hopper's studio give a huge clue to the artist. He felt most comfortable and most alive when he was looking at the world. While he didn't have children or many friends, he did have an intensely warm engagement with his visions of the world and its people.
Great paintings, like the Hopper at the beginning of this post, startle the viewer a bit. Their composition and their colors wake up the viewer's eyes. They make the viewer a bit more alive.
Hopper's painting Cape Cod Morning, could be thought of as a celebration to his years of living and his countless hours of looking and painting up on Cape Cod. What the woman in the painting is doing as she looks out at her yard was something Hopper had done thousands of times before. Perhaps she's seeing something for the first time and is bending forward for a closer look at her discovery.
One last photo- here's my wife Alice standing in Hopper's painting room in the Truro studio last September. You get a sense of the imposing studio window that casts its intense north light throughout the room. In Hopper's day he furnished the studio very minimally. It was here he conducted his personal romance with the act of looking. He saw more freshly than most. In this room he created so many of the world famous paintings that show us important things we'd have otherwise overlooked.
Hopper wasn't a teacher. He once commented that he'd tried to teach someone to draw and it was one of the worst experiences of his life. Ironically I think I've learned more about the elemental value of simple looking long and hard at the world from Hopper's paintings that from anything else.