The Magazine

Hopper's World

Solitude, light, and harbingers of death.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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Edward Hopper

National Gallery of Art

(Until January 21, 2008)

Art Institute of Chicago

(February 16-May 11, 2008)

Painter of Light. Over the centuries this phrase has been applied to many artists, from Pontormo to Monet, Fra Angelico to Turner. (It has even been copyrighted by Thomas Kinkade, Purveyor of Kitsch.) But at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts this summer, the only Painter of Light who mattered was Edward Hopper. This exhibition will doubtless be a hit at the National Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago; but it was in Boston that Hopper's stunning watercolors and oils of sun-washed Victorian mansions, seaside cottages, and lighthouses in Gloucester, Cape Cod, and Maine seemed most at home.

I didn't take a poll, but I'd bet an Essex fried clam dinner that the majority of mellow, sunburnt patrons crowding into the MFA gift shop were hoping to find a Hopper reproduction that, along with being Great Art, would remind them of a picturesque spot they visited on their summer vacation. At the same time, though, no sensible observer of this exhibition could think of Edward Hopper as Edward Happy. Even his loveliest New England watercolors have an eerie, ineffable emotional tone that, for lack of a better word, we call "Hopperesque."

It took a while for Hopper to become Hopperesque. Like many of his American peers, he made a youthful pilgrimage to France, between 1906 and 1910, studying Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Monet, and the Impressionists. The experience was so daunting, reports the catalogue, his "career floundered for a decade .  .  . while he painted lukewarm renditions of Parisian themes." But he persisted, and in the 1920s gained traction with his New England watercolors, which follow the Impressionists in capturing the play of light in the moment, as opposed to the steady, stagy--some would say Olympian--illumination of French academic painting.

In 19th-century America the masters of this spontaneous style were Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Yet there is a big difference between Hopper's watercolors and theirs: Hopper's contain no people. This is odd, given the artist's fondness for buildings and other places of human habitation and activity. He painted not only grand houses (Haskell's House, 1924) but also ordinary ones (Anderson's House and House by 'Squam River, Gloucester, 1926) and unlovely vistas on the working end of town (Box Factory, Gloucester, and Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928).

In Maine he focused on lighthouses which, curiously, were not considered worthy subjects of art at the time: One contemporary critic included them on a list of "buildings which ordinarily seem to be of the ugliest varieties." Hopper made lighthouses beautiful, and the calendar industry will be eternally grateful. But with one exception (Pemaquid Light, 1929), none of his New England paintings contains a human figure.

It's easy to miss this rather striking fact, because the exhibition opens with a self-portrait, painted between 1935 and 1940, that puts a vivid human face on both the artist and his work. And scattered throughout the exhibition are a number of drawings, done in the fluid pen-and-ink style Hopper acquired as a commercial illustrator, that display skill if not genius in rendering human figures walking, working, even sailing a boat. But already we can detect a certain avoidance of human expression. While their postures are natural and not forced, neither the clump of men in Pemaquid Light nor the people in the drawings have visible faces. Indeed, the only closely rendered, fully expressive face in the entire exhibition is that initial self-portrait, the product of five years' work.

This is not to deny the presence of people in Hopper's mature oils. His masterpiece, Nighthawks (1942), places four figures at its powerfully illuminated center: a red-headed woman and three men, patrons and counterman in a late-night city diner. But compared with Homer and Sargent, to say nothing of those French artists who intimidated Hopper in his youth, these figures are impossible to read. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? For heaven's sake, what are they doing? The questions pile up in works such as Room in New York (1932), Cape Cod Evening (1939), and Office at Night (1940), whose male and female subjects appear immobilized, their bodies encased in a chrysalis of brush strokes and their features congealed into masks.