Through January 21, 2008, at the National Gallery of Art (4th and Constitution Ave. NW, D.C.). Gallery Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Closed on December 25 and January 1. For further information, call 202-737-4215, or see www.nga.gov/hopper.
It's not everyday you get a call from the National Gallery of Art saying “We have a Falls Church story for you …”
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) often categorized as the “most American” of American Realist painters, lived with his artist wife Josephine in a Greenwich Village apartment in New York City, but also owned a small house in Truro, Mass., where they spent every summer from 1930 to 1967. In 1932 Hopper did a watercolor painting titled “Marshall's House” in Truro, located on the tip of Cape Cod, which is in the current Hopper show at the NGA. The circa-1825 Greek Revival cottage, known as the Marshall house, has been in the Marshall family since 1911. Turns out its current owners, the John Marshall family, live right here in the heart of Falls Church City.
Bizarre as it seems today, Truro was a small remote sea side town during the depression. And like virtually all small towns, everybody knows everybody. John Marshall, being a touch too young to remember much of Hopper, relates stories passed down though his parents.
At 6-foot-7 Hopper was a towering man, but one who didn't say much. His wife, known as Jo Ellen around Truro, was the voice of the family. The Hoppers would sit in their car and draw or paint the landscape around Truro — Edward in the front and Jo Ellen, much to her consternation, always relegated to the back seat.
Other than being boarded up for the off season, the “Marshall's House” watercolor seems no different than the vast majority of Hopper's works, known for his harsh, pure, cloudless sunlight, and hard geometric shadows depicting an architectural landscape devoid of people. As John Marshall confirms, Hopper detested the illustrator work he did to pay the bills in the early part of his career. Hopper was often quoted as saying, “All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a building.” He did that to be sure, but Hopper's work went deeper than that.
Hopper did, of course, paint people. While he favored architectural facades, he had no use for facades when it came to portraying people. Hopper's people are almost universally shown at a moment when the sociable public facade drops, and the inner existential struggle becomes plainly obvious. Hopper's people seem members of Thoreau's masses, leading lives of quiet desperation. Brought to the brink of reality and gazing their thousand yard stares off across the chasm between the reality of their daily lives and the vision of their hopes and dreams.
It's a form of psychological gloom that pervades virtually all of Hopper's people. Their slightly ham fisted depictions seem to say “care not for the visage, look at the person within.” Hopper's unrelentingly harsh light contrasts with the inward gloom of his protagonists. We feel the wearing away of souls in Hopper's work. It's beautiful, yet harsh work.
Everything an artist makes is a form of self portraiture. It's a fairly hackneyed art saying, but one that seems especially poignant with Hopper. Numerous photos of Hopper reveal a man looking out on the world with exactly the same sort of 1,000-yard stare he placed on virtually all the people in his works. It makes you wonder what was going on inside his head.
His towering height had to be an isolating factor, further exacerbated by his artistic life, which contrary to occasional perceptions, is never an easy road to travel. His having to essentially whore away his creativity as an illustrator early on is the sort of thing that eats artists alive. Add in the fact that he was only able to sell one painting before artistic success found him at the age of 41 (1925, when he gave up illustration), drop in the Depression Era and in the end, you've got a guy who knew what the short end of the straw looked like. We aren't privy to everything that went on inside Hopper's head, however his paintings make it plainly obvious he recognized, and empathized, with other people's private struggles within society at large.
By necessity Hopper's works do have a decidedly voyeuristic aspect to them. These are, after all, private moments when the public facade drops and the inner workings of the people at hand is revealed. It's a short step from that to Hopper's sexual voyeurism. While hardly noticeable by today's standards, some of Hopper's canvases must have raised an eyebrow or two in their day.
Hopper certainly wanted to paint light on the side of building … but that was in effect Edward Hopper's public facade. Hopper also wanted to strip away facades and reveal what was behind them. To this end, his work seems a direct antecedent to the late 20th century photo portraiture of Richard Avedon. Similarly Hopper's depopulated city scenes seem a direct jumping off point for the photo realistic paintings of Richard Estes.
In what we've come to think of as cinematic lighting, Hopper sought to paint the world's stage between takes, when all the actors were out of character and revealing their true selves. In this way Hopper was indeed a realist's realist.
Of special note: One of the 20th Century's most famous paintings, the much-parodied 1942 canvas “Nighthawks” is here on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. Probably one of the 10 most spoofed paintings of all time, it's nice to see the original source of all that on hand here.