Edward Hopper is one of America’s best known artists, and his iconic images of lonely people in a Manhattan café late at night, the red brick storefront in Early Sunday Morning, and a lighthouse off Cape Cod appear everywhere from the Whitney Museum of American Art to college dorm rooms.
But how well do we really know Edward Hopper?
I received some fascinating clues about this enigmatic giant of American art on a visit last week to his birthplace, the Edward Hopper House, in Nyack, New York, hard by the Hudson River and the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Hopper grew up in a solid, middle-class home with a view of the Hudson from his bedroom windows.
As a boy, he developed what would become a life-long fascination with water and boats, which makes sense when you see the view of the Hudson and the exquisite light that poured through his southern- and eastern-facing bedroom windows.
He was also, as it turns out, a bit of a loner and even a misanthrope. His own personal inability to connect with others at a deep level may explain the loneliness in the figures in his memorable works.
“His wife was also an artist,” says Richard Kendall, the art historian attached to the Edward Hopper House.
“Early on, she sublimated her career in favor of becoming his greatest champion. It’s not entirely clear whether Hopper returned the favor, however.”
Framed drawings on the walls of the stately home, made by Hopper in the early decades of their marriage, crossed the line from playfulness into something darker.
A sketch of a canvas blown off its easel while painting en plein air on Cape Cod somehow landed on his poor wife’s head and came to rest around her neck.
In other drawings and paintings, Hopper poses his wife awkwardly and even unattractively, calling to mind the positioning of female models by Degas or even Balthus.
A framed photo of Hopper’s visage on a Time Magazine cover from the 1960s suggests a deep sadness on the part of the artist.
Further explanations of Hopper’s nature will likely be found in a massive trove of documents, drawings, schoolwork, and other types of juvenilia found at the Edward Hopper House.
On my visit, Kendall kindly showed me some of the documents that Hopper had lovingly created and fiercely guarded throughout his lifetime.
There are sketchbooks, his penmanship book, schoolwork, and minutes of the meetings of a three-person club that Hopper had created along with two of his friends.
The material will go on display later this year.
There’s no reason to wait to take a trip to Nyack, though, because touring the Edward Hopper House is a fascinating and lovely way to learn more about an artist whose work has already penetrated our deepest thoughts.
Who among us hasn’t gazed at Nighthawks, his famous painting of a lonely grouping of individuals in a late-night café, and wondered who those people were and what had brought them together that evening?
When we think about the gas stations, storefronts, lighthouses, and boats that Hopper painted, we often feel we are touching the very soul of early 20th century America.
The community of Nyack essentially rescued the house from the wrecking ball in 1971 and turned it into a small museum, which features exhibitions by artists who fell under Hopper’s influence.
Hopper left Nyack at age 28 to study art in New York City. New Yorkers and art lovers from all points would be well-advised to take the journey in the opposite direction, come to Nyack, and visit his boyhood home, because it makes some of the paintings we already carry in our internal art collections that much more understandable and real.