Edward Hopper

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Hopper is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant twentieth century American realist painters. His deceptively simple but striking images of the loneliness and alienation of city life have become icons of American popular culture.

Early Life

Edward Hopper was born in the small seafaring town of Nyack, New York, on July 22, 1882. Hopper’s father, Garrett Henry Hopper, was of English and Dutch descent. His mother, Elizabeth Griffiths Smith, was English and Welsh. Garrett owned and operated a dry-goods store in Nyack. Both Hopper and his sister, Marion, were introduced to the arts during childhood by their mother, who encouraged them to draw. Rather shy and quiet as a child, Hopper developed a penchant for solitude that remained with him for the rest of his life. He also developed a love for the sea and the nautical life—later reflected in his work—and spent much of his boyhood at the Nyack shipyards.

Hopper attended a local private school for the primary grades. After graduating from Nyack Union High School in 1899, Hopper decided to become a fine artist. His parents, however, persuaded him to study commercial illustration—which, they believed, offered a more secure income than did painting—at the Correspondence School of Illustrating in New York City. Dissatisfied with illustration, Hopper transferred the following year to the New York School of Art, where he remained for the next six years studying under William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Robert Henri. Henri, Hopper’s most influential teacher at the New York School of Art, was a major proponent of the so-called ashcan school. This group of radical American artists sought to paint the harsher, more urban qualities of contemporary life, while retaining elements of the impressionist style. Hopper later stated that it took him years to “get over” Henri’s influence.

Between 1906 and 1910, Hopper traveled to Europe, supporting his journeys through illustration, a profession he detested but relied upon during his years as a struggling artist. Introduced to the works of the French Impressionists, including Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, Hopper experimented with the Impressionist style during this period. After returning to New York in 1910, however, his palette began to darken, and he painted in a style closer to that of his former teacher, Robert Henri, and other contemporary realists.

Hopper never returned to Europe. He spent the rest of his life in New York and New England. The years immediately following his return home were financially difficult, and Hopper once again supported himself as a commercial illustrator. He also began exhibiting his paintings. Although these early paintings met with little critical success, Hopper experienced much artistic growth as an artist during this period.

In 1915 Hopper was introduced to etching. By the early 1920’s, his etchings contained several key elements characteristic of his more mature work: unusual vantage points, harshly lit scenes of city life at night, themes of alienation and loneliness, and the solitary female figure near a window.

Life’s Work

The year 1924 marked a turning point in Hopper’s professional life: He had his first one-man show. In 1923 Hopper had given up etching and taken up watercolors. What interested him about watercolors was not the creation of textures or the manipulation of the medium but the exploration and recording of light. In an uncharacteristically bold move, Hopper took some of his watercolors to Frank K. M. Rehn, an art dealer in New York, in 1924. Impressed by the works, Rehn not only became Hopper’s first dealer but also arranged a one-man show in his gallery. All eleven watercolors that were shown, as well as five additional pieces, were sold. The show was also a critical success. Aside from illustrations and prints, Hopper had only sold two other paintings up to that point: Sailing (1912 or 1913), an oil, at the Armory Show in New York in 1913; and The Mansard Roof (1923), a watercolor, to the Brooklyn Museum in 1923. After 1924 Hopper had the financial freedom to give up illustrating and devote himself entirely to his art.

Hopper’s personal life also changed in 1924 when he married Josephine Verstile Nivison, a fellow student from the New York School of Art with whom he had kept in touch over the years. Although they never had children, the couple was inseparable for the next forty-three years. “Jo,” as Hopper called her, promoted her husband’s work, managed most of his affairs, and was his only female model after their marriage.

An oil painting called House by the Railroad (1925) marked the period of Hopper’s mature style. In this work, Hopper resolved a number of important influences, from French...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)