Ahead of His Time

Edward Hopper and Contemporaries on Display at the Whitney


Published: February 2, 2011

Young skyscrapers emerge out of the fog covering Manhattan’s early 20th century skyline as excerpts from Walt Whitman’s 1867 poem, “Mannahatta,” flash atop them in glorious black and white. “High growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.” Projected on the wall of the Whitney Museum’s second floor gallery, “Manhatta,” Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s 1921 avant-garde film, inspired by Whitman’s poetry, introduces “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time.” Appropriately, visitors see both the majesty and monstrosity of New York City’s architecture after the explosion of industry during this period, just as artist Edward Hopper and his contemporaries did. The work that follows highlights Hopper’s realist paintings and his singular vision in relation to his peers and their approaches to modernity.

Though the exhibition covers the first 40 years of the 20th century, Hopper’s approach to his artwork remains generally unwavering, allowing for a lot of stunning paintings despite a gradual evolution in style. “Tugboat with Black Smokestack” (1908), one of the first works on display, quickly establishes Hopper’s relative pessimism regarding modern life compared to other artists of the time, and his penchant for eerie, foreboding scenes of everyday life. The painting’s featured tugboat near the harbor and its washed out shades of gray, blue, brown, red are overshadowed by the jet-black smokestack protruding from the boat’s roof and the smoke billowing out of it in droves, a harbinger of technology’s dramatic impact on land, sea and air.

“Le Bistro” or “The Wine Shop” (1909), Hopper’s first painting conceived and executed entirely on his own, is set in Paris despite the artist’s later obsession with the minutiae of Americana. It established several recurring Hopper trademarks including its casual café setting, artificially strong use of shadows and rigid geometric shapes. And it is particularly notable because, while inspired by several trips to the French capital, Hopper completely ignored the prevailing avant-garde trends of the time, set by figures like Picasso and Matisse, in favor of the Impressionists and Edgar Degas who had largely fallen out of favor. From the beginning, Hopper was out of step with the art world.

“Soir Bleu” (1914), a particularly strange Hopper painting depicts a melancholy, cigarette-smoking clown and others at a waterfront café. Hopper rejects French abstraction yet manages to create a surreal image from a preferred everyday scene, and the piece remains distinctively French. In this way, he both subverts and exceeds the public expectation of him.

However, while Hopper was rebellious to suit his artistic vision, he closely watched his contemporaries, some of whom he followed and others whom he railed against. “The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue” (1907), by John Sloan, a member of the famous Ashcan School of artists who documented New York City at the time, is an early example of both the use of dramatic lighting to strengthen the mood of a city hotspot, and a voyeuristic perspective. Its depiction of the infamous club, and the artificial light of its entrance as the only light source in the darkness of night, is particularly Hopper-esque and surely influenced his work. Accompanying “The Haymarket” is a quote attributed to Sloan: “The fun of being a New York painter is that landmarks are torn down so rapidly that your canvasses become historical records almost before the paint on them is dry.” Hopper might agree with the observation of the changing city though we can assume he would question its “fun.”

Particularly telling of the divergence in artistic method and opinion regarding industrialism as it continued to spread are two remarkable paintings included in the exhibition: Precisionist painter Charles Demuth’s “My Egypt” (1927) and Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning” (1930). Demuth depicts a large Pennsylvania grain elevator through stained-glass-like diagonal planes, with sunlight shining down toward it. In this way, he compares a concrete industrial necessity with both the ancient pyramids and a religious icon. To the lives of many Americans, perhaps its significance deemed the comparison apt, though “Early Sunday Morning” appears to contradict that view. The painting depicts a sleepy city street, storefront apartments of only two stories, waking up for the day under what appears to be a looming monolith to the far right. The scene, complete with the iconic small-town barber pole, stands in the dawn’s long shadows. Here, modern progress is cast in the darkest of colors, not deified, and threatens to swallow, not save, that which came before it.

Hopper’s final works in the exhibition evoke both the beauty of the country and the sadness of losing a more humble, old-fashioned way of life. “Railroad Sunset” (1929) and “Cape Cod Sunset” (1934) show quaint scenes of country life as the sun sets both literally and figuratively. While other artists of the time found beauty in the complexity and promise of the future, Hopper seemed more cynical about its effects. “South Carolina Morning” (1955) appears to show the aftermath of the aforementioned sunset, as a disgruntled woman stands in a dingy doorway next to boarded windows, finding herself and the burnt, endless plains around her deserted. Here, Hopper’s always-dramatic use of lighting manifests itself as the morning sun, not to signify a new dawn but to highlight the aftermath of night.

“Modern Life” sets out to contextualize the curious work of Edward Hopper and it does so magnificently, effectively placing him as a man both connected and disconnected to the events of his day. While he seemed obsessed with everyday scenes of American life, he reproduced them with a dark, foreboding edge, as if he were painting scenes from the past. And while he carefully followed the work of his peers and prevailing trends of the day, he quietly rebelled against them or, perhaps more cunningly, co-opted and perfected artistic technique. His creative lens was not the most popular but half a century later, it is the most provocative—a peep show of the changing world.