What Two Early Edward Hopper Etchings Say to Us Today
Edward Hopper lived a long time and kept painting right up until the end. As a result, his earlier work strikes some contemporary viewers as more dated than what he produced later on. For that reason it's not reproduced as often. Yet the seeds of Hopper's art sprouted and bloomed early. We can learn a lot about drawing and about seeing creatively from his early efforts.
Here are two of his etchings. Above, two passengers sit on the elevated train in New York City. The man is lost in his reading. The young woman gazes out the window the way Hopper himself would likely have been doing. While the two figures apparently ignore each other, they still feel linked together because of choices Hopper made. First, they're both dark silhouettes that stand out as they sit on what's mostly a light bench. If you imagine the axis of either figure you realize both lean back on the same 45 degree diagonal trajectory. This is a conscious positioning of their forms by Hopper, as if he was saying they only seem unrelated.
One other delightful artifice in the etching is the way Hopper stays creative with his detail work on the car's windows. While the window frames are all left pretty light, the one window that surrounds the woman's shoulder and head mysteriously darkens. I think Hopper decided to contrast the organic shapes of the woman against the hard and straight geometry of the window frame. This is an example of the wonderful selectivity one finds in really great art. Hopper shows us his world is as much concerned with how he depicts things rather than just what he is describing. Therein lies much of the emotional power of his art.
And below is one of my favorite Hoppers, The Cat Boat. Hopper grew up a block from the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. (Incidentally, the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack that preserves Hopper's boyhood home has an important show of early Hopper work on display right now- Edward Hopper: Prelude. The Nyack Years through July 17). As a boy he built his own sailboat and was obviously a keen observer of the details of nautical design. This etching puts that knowledge to good use.
One of the great themes of landscape art is to pull together forms that seem at first unconnected. Here Hopper creates a beautiful harmony between the rolling hillside on the shore, the sailboat and its occupants. Look at the darkened edge of the far hillside on the right. If you cast your eye along its path as it moves toward the center, it connects on the left side of the boat's mast with a well placed highlight among the darkened foliage. Then trace the angle of the boat's transom (back end). It travels across the print's surface at just the same angle. This lends the piece a sense that this boat is sailing in front of exactly the right hilly shoreline.
Not content to stop there, Hopper then turns his attention to linking his sailors to their vessel. Look at the angle of the darkly accented boom (the pole at the bottom of the sail) and follow its diagonal. Compare that with the angle formed by highlights on the shoulders and elbows of the two main figures. They too move across the surface of the print on a diagonal that runs exactly parallel with the ship's boom. Hopper is telling us these sailors and their boat are in this together. It feels just right.
I often tell my students that a work of art is simpler, more clear, and easier to feel than the so often contradictory and fragmented thing we call reality. Like an engaging piece of music, it softly pulls our emotions off in a new direction. Art has the power to enlarge our experience.