Gail Levin’s biography of Edward Hopper is the culmination of twenty years of scholarship on this great American artist. Her previous books have dealt with various aspects of his work, including a complete catalog. For this biography, she appears to have interviewed every important friend or associate of Hopper who is still alive. She has had complete access to his wife’s important diaries. She has also investigated thoroughly the literary, philosophical, and artistic influences on his work. The result is a formidable labor of learning that is not likely to be superseded.
With so much material, Levin faced several obstacles that she has deftly overcome. As her subtitle suggests, she aims to write a readable book, uncongested by the mountain of data that sometimes bloats and diffuses biographical narratives. Levin puts the life first by establishing a firm sense of chronology and then integrating her description and discussion of Hopper’s work into her narrative. No work—no matter how important—is allowed to stall the story; indeed, when Levin turns to Hopper’s illustrations, watercolors, and oil paintings, they are often seen as a culmination of events in his life.
On the face of it, Hopper would seem to be a poor subject for a lively biography. He had few friends and was not inclined to express his emotions freely. He traveled to Paris as a young man and kept a summer home in Truro, Massachusetts, but most of his life centered on New York City. Most of what really mattered happened inside of him and on his canvases. These factors would not seem to make for an engrossing narrative. Yet Hopper is not a dull subject in this biography. His introverted nature, his moroseness, and his constipated character become fascinating topics. Some years he produced no more than two or three paintings, and he was aghast at the productivity of titans such as Pablo Picasso. Nevertheless, Hopper’s slow, elusive, painstaking pace—especially when juxtaposed to his work—makes for an intriguing, if somber tale.
If Hopper did not share his feelings with others, how can a biographer tell what they were? Levin makes superb use of his drawings. There is, for example, a pen-and-ink drawing of Hopper boxing with one of his school friends. Hopper’s friend is thickly muscled and aggressive; Hopper is loose and lanky and off balance from the punch his friend delivers. Unsure of himself, the youthful Hopper was slow to develop as a man and as an artist. Levin can show readers this much by reproducing the drawings and noting how careful and aloof he was in his two youthful trips to France—forming an attachment with one young woman, but almost certainly not enjoying a sexual affair. At the same time, sex clearly interested him, if one may judge by his drawings of strutting, large-busted Parisian street women. Levin treats Hopper as a repressed puritan, without engaging in heavy-handed psychological analysis. Instead she explores his family and social background and shows how a boy from Nyack, New York, would have been slow to express himself, socially, sexually, and artistically.
The evidence of the drawings is powerfully seconded by the testimony of Josephine Hopper’s diaries. Jo (as she was called) kept meticulous records of Hopper’s work and of their life together. She was his opposite: extroverted and energetic. What he could admit about himself only in drawings and paintings she put into words. She pictures him as lonely and aloof, much like the melancholy and distant figures of his compositions. What Jo says in her diary is corroborated in the testimony of Levin’s other interviewees. If Jo’s diaries were the only data available, she might be suspected of ex- aggeration, but Levin has gathered a wealth of other sources that vindicate Jo’s words.
Jo was an artist who felt stymied by all the attention accorded her husband. She was not jealous. Indeed, she acknowledged her husband as the greater artist and never begrudged him the fame that she believed he deserved. She often served as his model and never complained about the time modeling took away from her own work. What did grieve her was her husband’s hostility to the very idea of his wife as an artist. He often told her that her painting was no good. Only on rare occasions did he offer compliments or make an effort to promote her not inconsiderable talents.
To Jo, it seemed monstrous that she should be willing to give much to her husband’s career and he would not give back even a tenth as much to her. Even worse, most of Hopper’s friends and acquaintances in the art world ignored Jo’s work. It is a scandal that the Whitney Museum destroyed most of Jo’s work, which she bequeathed to it. Even from a purist’s point of view—one that deems only Edward Hopper worthy of study—the curators should have seen that Jo’s work...
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